19 months ago Northwestern football players filed an election petition with the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Led by former Wildcat quarterback Kain Colter, they cited that college football players make billions of dollars for their respective schools, both public and private, therefore, they should in turn, have a say in player safety, long term health care and other issues. On Monday that same board dismissed that same petition saying that the Northwestern players were not university employees.
This is huge news for the sport, especially considering the March, 2014 ruling of NLRB regional director Peter Ohr. Then, Ohr ruled that this group of Northwestern football players were employees of the university and have the right to form a union and bargain collectively.
In that spring decision Ohr said, “It cannot be said that the employer’s scholarship players are ‘primarily students,”.
This contradicted everything about what college athletics were supposed to be and had been for decades. Student-athletes received scholarships. In return, they practiced and performed for their respective universities.
Today’s decision was a big setback for this movement. It was a unanimous decision among the five-member panel of the NLRB. This board analyzed the nature, composition and structure of college football and concluded that Northwestern football players would be attempting to bargain with a single employer over policies that apply league-wide. Northwestern is one of 128 schools in the football bowl subdivision of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The majority of the schools are public universities, which fall outside of the board's jurisdiction.
If the NLRB would have allowed the Northwestern players to unionize than this would have been the first ripple effect of change that would have forever altered college athletics moving forward. It would have begun at Northwestern, allowing these players to bargain with the school, potentially giving these players an advantage. It would affect the competitive balance, first in the Big Ten.
The NLRB ruling today only affects Northwestern players and this case. It does not deal with other players from other universities trying to unionize.
The television contract for the new college football playoff system is worth $7.3 billion over 10 years, and the current deal to broadcast the men’s basketball tournament is worth $10.8 billion over 14 years.