Labor board punts on NW players’ case

By Daniel Wiessner and Mica Rosenberg

The U.S. National Labor Relations Board said on Monday it dismissed a case brought by football players at Northwestern University seeking to unionize, saying it did not have jurisdiction to rule in the case.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) currently prohibits players from earning income beyond their academic scholarships and nominal stipends that cover the cost of college attendance.

But a group of players – spearheaded by former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter – brought a case to the board seeking a union to negotiate for a share in the profits from ticket sales, television contracts and licensing deals. The board, however, said it did not want to single out just one team.

“As the NCAA and conference maintain substantial control over individual teams, the Board held that asserting jurisdiction over a single team would not promote stability in labor relations across the league,” the five-member board said in a unanimous decision.

It was an narrow decision by the board, however, limited only to players covered by this particular case, the ruling said.

The Northwestern football players had argued they should be considered employees.

Northwestern University said in a statement that all its athletes are “students, first and foremost” and that participating in sports was part of an “overall educational experience.”

“We believe strongly that unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes,” the university said, adding that it was pleased with the NLRB’s decision.

The NCAA did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), which brought the complaint, also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Colter and former University of California-Los Angeles football player Ramogi Huma co-founded CAPA, a first-of-its-kind union to represent student athletes in elite sports programs.

The Northwestern case spurred a national debate over whether elite college athletes are truly amateurs. Colleges and the NCAA benefit handsomely from ticket sales, television contracts and licensing deals.

The NCAA reported $872 million in 2012 revenue, while Northwestern’s football program generated revenue of $235 million and $159 million in expenses from 2003 to 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The NLRB regional director who handled the case noted that Northwestern football players each receive scholarship assistance worth about $61,000 per year, and in exchange spend 40 to 50 hours a week during the regular season practicing, playing and traveling to games.

Northwestern statements on the NLRB decision

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