(CN) – In a major victory for the NCAA, the National Labor Relations Board declined to exercise jurisdiction over Northwestern football players’ efforts to unionize because it cannot regulate most college football teams.
Last year, NLRB Chicago regional director Peter Sung Ohr ruled that Northwestern University football players are school employees and can form a union.
Players formed the College Athletes Players Association and petitioned the NLRB to collectively bargain for health and safety issues, like other employees protected by the National Labor Relations Act.
In his ruling, Ohr held the Northwestern football players were employees of the university because they received scholarships for performing a full week’s worth of work per week, at the university’s direction.
Although the NCAA limits athletes to 20 hours per week of practices and games during the season, Ohr said football players on scholarship also spend considerable time training, traveling to games, and on other football-related activities.
“[T]he evidence establishes that the players continue to devote 40 to 50 hours per week to their football duties all the way through to the end of the season, which could last until early January,” Ohr wrote.
Based on these factors, Ohr wrote, the players “fall squarely within the [National Labor Relations] Act’s broad definition of ’employee’ when one considers the common law definition of ’employee.'”
But in a unanimous decision issued Monday, the five-member NLRB declined to assert jurisdiction over the matter, and dismissed the players’ petition to unionize.
The board said that “asserting jurisdiction in this case would not serve to promote stability in labor relations.” It noted that it received 22 briefs filed by third parties.
The NLRB said its decision was primarily motivated by the fact that NCAA Division I football comprises 125 college and university teams, each of which offers different terms and conditions for its sports scholarships.
By law, the board does not have jurisdiction over state-run schools, which constitute 108 of the 125 teams. It governs relationships between private businesses and their employees.
While some states allow public employees to bargain collectively, three members of the Big Ten conference are located in states that do not. Every school in the Big Ten, except Northwestern, is a state school.
“Under these circumstances, there is an inherent asymmetry of the labor relations regulatory regimes applicable to individual teams. In other contexts, the board’s assertion of jurisdiction helps promote uniformity and stability, but in this case, asserting jurisdiction would not have that effect because the Board cannot regulate most FBS teams,” the 8-page decision states.
Unlike in the professional sports leagues, allowing Northwestern players to unionize would create disparity among players, because the board would be unable to similarly regulate the school’s main competitors.
The NLRB also emphasized that the players’ petition had raised awareness for the situation of scholarship athletes, and had already prompted reforms.
Northwestern spokesman Alan Cubbage said in a statement that the university welcomes the decision.
“As the university has stated previously, Northwestern considers its students who participate in NCAA Division I sports, including those who receive athletic scholarships, to be students, first and foremost,” Cubbage said. “We applaud our players for bringing national attention to these important issues, but we believe strongly that unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes. We are pleased that the NLRB has agreed with the university’s position.”
The NCAA also released a statement, agreeing with the board’s ruling and citing benefits provided to student-athletes.
“The National Labor Relations Board’s decision to reject jurisdiction and dismiss the union petition in this case is appropriate. In its ruling, the NLRB recognized the NCAA continually evolves to better support college athletes. In recent years we have provided college athletes with multi-year scholarships, free education for former college athletes and unlimited meals,” the association’s statement reads. “Further, college athletes helped Division I change rules in January to provide guaranteed, full cost of attendance scholarships and improve student wellbeing. The NCAA and its member schools are committed to providing the best support possible for all college athletes and will continue to do so in the future.”
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