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Board rules Northwestern football players cannot unionize

Labor dispute goes to the heart of college sports where universities reap billions by relying on unpaid athletes

The National Labor Relations Board on Monday overturned a historic ruling that gave Northwestern University football players the go-head to form the nation's first college athletes union, saying it could throw off the competitive balance in college football.

The decision throws out a March 2014 ruling by a regional NLRB director in Chicago who said that college football players are effectively school employees and entitled to organize. Monday's decision did not directly address the question of whether football players are employees.

The labor dispute goes to the heart of U.S. college sports, where universities and conferences reap billions of dollars, mostly through broadcast contracts, by relying on amateurs who are not paid. In other countries, college sports are small-time club affairs, while elite youth athletes often turn pro as teens.

The unanimous ruling by the five-member National Labor Relations Board concludes that letting Northwestern football players unionize could lead to different standards at different schools — from amounts of money players receive to the amount of time they can practice. That would, it says, create the competitive imbalances.

Monday's 16-page ruling cites federal law and contends that unionized football players at Northwestern would not promote the “uniformity” and “stability” between workers and management that it says is the goal of U.S. labor relations law.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association released a statement Monday calling the NLRB decision “appropriate.”

“This ruling allows us to continue to make progress for the college athlete without risking the instability to college sports that the NLRB recognized might occur under the labor petition," Donald Remy, NCAA chief legal officer, said in the statement.

Northwestern University echoed those sentiments: “We believe strongly that unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes.”

However, the executive director of the National College Players Association, Ramogi Huma, said that despite the ruling, the “door's not closed” on an effort to allow college athletes to unionize. 

While NLRB decisions are sometimes split, the three Democrat and two Republican board members all agreed to Monday's ruling.

The ruling applies to private schools, like Northwestern, which is a member of the Big Ten Conference. Public universities do not fall under the agency's jurisdiction, though union activists have said they thought the Northwestern example would inspire unionization campaigns by athletes at state schools.

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