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Last year football players at Northwestern were told they would be allowed to unionize. But last week, the the National Labor Relations Board blocked that effort, essentially ruling that players cannot be considered “employees” of the university.

Making Money Off Athletes

Schools with large football programs like Northwestern make a lot of money from broadcast deals and ticket sales, but it seems that money doesn’t necessarily trickle down to the players. While most receive scholarships it can still seem unfair when it comes to just how much money a university can take home yearly. Last year, Northwestern’s football team sought to form a union that would be able to bargain for things like medical care and other benefits. During an initial hearing at the NLRB that took place last year, a director agreed with the footballers, saying that athletes that had received scholarships should be considered “employees” under U.S. law.


In last week’s decision, the NLRB reversed that decision, deciding that to allow Northwestern’s team to form a union would only cause wider problems for college sports. In other words, allowing a union to form at Northwestern would mean that other schools would be at a competitive disadvantage if they chose to not offer the same benefits as a unionized school. 

Employees or Not?

What the debate really comes down to is if the athletes should be considered employees of the university or not. In a unanimous decision, the NLRB seemed to skirt that issue, in what was maybe an attempt to leave the door open for future similar debates at other schools, and the over-arching question of if college athletes should be able to unionize. The NLRB, citing the unique nature of college sports, ruled that allowing Northwestern football players to form a union would be unfair to players elsewhere in the National Collegiate Athletic Association who are not able to unionize.

“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.

First Time

This is the first time the NLRB has been asked to rule on a case involving college athletes of any kind. It’s also the first time the NLRB has been asked to certify a single-team (Northwestern’s) in any sport. It’s important to note that the NLRB only has jurisdiction over private schools, of which there are only 17 of the 125 football programs in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision.

Reactions to Ruling

According to Brian Paul, a labor attorney at Michael Best & Friedrich LLP, the NLRB’s ruling was a surprising one.

“What the NLRB has done is invite the group to come back if the landscape changes enough to warrant unionization,” Paul said. “The single school doesn’t have enough influence on how the FBS as a whole is operated.”

Meanwhile, Vice President for University Relations Alan K. Cubbage said, “Northwestern is pleased by the decision and considers its athletes to be students first and foremost. Northwestern’s position remains that participation in athletics is part of the overall educational experience for our student-athletes, not a separate activity.”

While the decision was unanimous, it still leaves the door wide open for future teams, which is not necessarily helpful.

Lamar Alexander, the Republican senator from Tennessee who is also chairman of the Senate labor committee, said that while preventing the union effort was the right thing for student athletes, the board still had done them “no favor by leaving the question open for the future.”

“I do not believe that Congress, when it wrote the National Labor Relations Act, intended that students – whether they be athletes or graduate assistants – be considered employees of their university,” he said.

Potential Profit

The effort to unionize had the potential to dramatically alter the business of college sports. According to the data that school submit to the U.S. Department of Education, schools that are part of the top division in football turned a $1.4 billion profit on $3.4 billion in revenue in the fiscal year ending June 2014.

In terms of next steps for players, there really are none.

“That is it,” says Doug Allen, a labor-relations professor at Penn State University. He was also assistant executive director of the NFL Players Association from 1982-2007. “That’s a final and binding result.”

Seeking Compensation

The group trying to unionize was seeking the following: guaranteed coverage of sports-related medical expenses for not just current but also former athletes, sponsorship compensation, an increase in scholarship value, and a trust fund to help former players finish their degrees.

It seems that many of those issues have already been addressed by the sport’s overseers over the last couple of months, with rulings offering at least a portion of the returns on annual broadcast revenues. It was also decided last October that athletes in the Pac-12 that are injured during college competitions would receive medical coverage for up to four years after graduating.

“A lot of these things that we’ve been fighting for for decades, they finally came about because college players decided to stand up for what they believe in,” said former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter following the decision. “This wasn’t the outcome that we wanted but the big thing is that they didn’t rule against us; they basically decided not to rule.”

Working With an Employment Lawyer

An employment lawyer handles many types of employment law claims, including the following:

  • Wrongful termination: Employees who believe they were let go from their jobs based on a discriminatory action can take legal action against their employers. Discriminatory actions can be based upon a person’s gender, sexual orientation, race, disability, medical condition (including pregnancy), age, national origin or religion. If you feel you have been discriminated against because of these reasons an employment lawyer like the ones at RHM LAW LLP can investigate your claim and effectively represent your rights and interests.
  • Wage and hour litigation: Employees can pursue claims for unpaid overtime, unpaid meal and rest breaks, minimum wage pay and other claims related to wages and hours worked. RHM LAW LLP is familiar with the specific rules of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) along with federal and state wage and hour laws.

Meeting With an Employment Law Attorney

If you feel you have a case and that you have been discriminated against or have been unfairly paid, you should schedule a meeting with an employment lawyer. Before you meet with a lawyer, you’ll want to make sure that you are prepared. Here are some things you’ll want to bring to the meeting:

  • Any and all papers from your personnel file. These may or may not be available to you without going to court and getting an order. If you’re an employer, you’ll want to bring the personnel file and other information relevant to the employee’s situation.
  • The personnel manual, if one exists.
  • Copies of all correspondence and notices relating to your claim.
  • Dates can be critical, so you’ll want to record them. Get a calendar and record all the dates of when things happened, when you received any notices or other documents. The calendar can be used as a reference when you meet with your attorney.
  • Have names, addresses, and telephone numbers for everyone you have talked with. That includes the names of any representatives at government agencies. .
  • Round up your insurance policies.  A lawyer will want to see if there is any chance of coverage for your claims.

An employment lawyer will review the merits of your complaint and advise you on the next steps in pursuing legal action. That could either be negotiating a settlement or pursuing further litigation in court. The Los Angeles employment law attorneys at RHM LAW LLP can help protect you against further employment dispute claims.

Working With an Employment Law Attorney

There are rules and regulations for your safety and well-being while at work. That means safety from discrimination and unfair treatment. If you feel you have been treated unfairly by an employer you should immediately contact an employment law attorney. Federal and state employment laws provide directives for the workplace that protect employees who have experienced discrimination and other adverse actions. Whether you are an employee who has been wrongfully terminated or are an employer requiring guidance with a legal matter, our Los Angeles employment law attorneys can assist you.

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