(Bloomberg) — Northwestern University football players cannot form a union, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled, overturning a March 2014 decision and ending the players’ bid to change the college sports landscape.
In its unanimous decision, the labor board skirted the issue of whether the players are employees and left open the door to other college athletes winning the right to unionize.
The board cited the unique nature of college sports in saying it would foster instability to permit Northwestern football players to form a union while players elsewhere in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) are not.
“Our decision is primarily premised on a finding that because of the nature of sports leagues…it would not promote stability in labor relations to assert jurisdiction in this case,” the decision said.
This was the first case before the NLRB involving college athletes of any kind, and it’s the first time the board has been asked to certify a single-team unit in any sport. Of the 125 football programs in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, the top echelon, just 17 are private schools and Northwestern is the only one in the Big Ten Conference. The NLRB only has jurisdiction over private schools, while state labor boards oversee public institutions.
Northwestern is pleased by the decision and considers its athletes to be students first and foremost, Vice President for University Relations Alan K. Cubbage said in an e-mailed statement.
“Northwestern’s position remains that participation in athletics is part of the overall educational experience for our student-athletes, not a separate activity,” he said.
Former UCLA football player Ramogi Huma, founder of College Athletes Players Association, which was trying to organize the Northwestern players, declined to comment before reading the ruling.
The unionization effort, along with recent lawsuits seeking to increase college players’ rights, had the potential to upend the business of college sports. Schools in college football’s top division turned a $1.4 billion profit on $3.4 billion in revenue in the fiscal year ended June 2014, according to data schools submit to the U.S. Department of Education.
The NLRB’s decision leaves no recourse for Northwestern players to appeal.
“That is it,” Doug Allen, a labor-relations professor at Penn State University who was assistant executive director of the NFL Players Association from 1982-2007, said about such an outcome prior to the NLRB review. “That’s a final and binding result.”