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Business and Policy Areas
Business and Policy Areas

NLRB Dismisses Union Bid from Northwestern Football Players

August 25, 2015

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) declined to rule on whether athletes should be considered employees of the institution who have a right to organize. Considering an appeal from a regional ruling last year that categorized Northwestern University football players receiving scholarships as employees who had a right to unionize, the NLRB took the unusual step of failing to assert jurisdiction over the matter and dismissed the players' petition. 

The Board considered arguments on both sides but decided that it did not have jurisdiction over the dispute and dismissed the petition filed by a group of Northwestern University football players. The players group won a regional ruling last year, which found that players receiving scholarships for football were employees of Northwestern University and had a right to organize under the National Labor Relations Act (Act). 

The NLRB did not determine if the players were statutory employees under the Act. Instead, it exercised its discretion not to assert jurisdiction. According to the decision, the Board held that asserting jurisdiction would not promote labor stability due to the nature and structure of the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). The Board does not have jurisdiction over state-run colleges and universities, which constitute 108 of the roughly 125 FBS teams. Every school in the Big Ten, except Northwestern, is a public university. The Board's rationale is that since the NCAA and conference maintain substantial control over individual teams, asserting jurisdiction over a single team would not promote stability in labor relations across the league.

The decision applies to the Northwestern football players in this case and does not preclude future consideration of the issue.


Mary Bachinger
Director, Tax Policy