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Wednesday, July 17, 2024 | Back issues
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Northwestern Averts Labor Action on Football

CHICAGO (CN) — In a letter that classifies Northwestern University football players as "employees," general counsel to the National Labor Relations Board passed on charging the school for previous infractions.

Northwestern's football handbook previously ordered players not to discuss any aspects of the team, or the physical condition of any players, because what takes place in the locker room "stays within this family."

It now tells players they "should not" reveal the medical condition of any player, in light of privacy concerns.

Another problematic passage in former handbook forbade players from posting embarrassing images on social media, citing the need to "protect[] the image and reputation of Northwestern University."

That language has been deleted, and student-athletes are advised only that they may be sanctioned for posting pictures that depict harassment, include racial or sexual epithets, or violate the university's code of conduct.

Football players are now encouraged to refer any media questions to the team publicists, but are no longer instructed that they may "never" agree to an interview without consulting the school.

Though NLRB associate general counsel Barry Kearney found the pre-existing rules governing student-athlete conduct unlawful, he declined to bring a complaint against Northwestern since it updated the handbook.

"The employer, although still maintaining that athletic scholarship football players are not employees under the NLRA, modified the rules to bring them into compliance with the NLRA and sent the scholarship football players a notice of the corrections, which sets forth the rights of employees under the NLRA," the Sept. 22 memo says, abbreviating the National Labor Relations Act. "The region should therefore dismiss the charge."

A director for the regional office overseeing the school in Evanston, Illinois, had sought the general counsel's advice on Northwestern's current and former football handbooks.

In a footnote, Kearney states: "We assume, for purposes of this memorandum, that Northwestern's scholarship football players are statutory employees."

Proponents of allowing student-athlete unionization interpreted this footnote as a tacit acknowledgement of the students' true employee relationship with the university.

"The general counsel specifically putting in writing that they would treat Northwestern players as employees is historic," College Athletes Players Association director Ramogi Huma said in a statement. "This is not a small thing."

Last year, the NLRB tossed Northwestern football players' efforts to unionize, although the NLRB Chicago regional director found that the players qualify as school employees.

The board emphasized that it cannot regulate most college football teams because many states do not allow public employees to bargain collectively. To let some players unionize, when others cannot, would create an "inherent asymmetry" in labor relations, the board said.

Alan Cubbage, Northwestern's vice president for university relations, said the school "disputes the General Counsels' assumption that Northwestern's scholarship football players are employees," but lauded the NLRB's decision not to pursue charges.

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