NLRB declines jurisdiction over Northwestern football players

The NLRB has declined to assert jurisdiction in the case involving Northwestern University football players who receive grant-in-aid scholarships. In a unanimous decision, the Board exercised its discretion not to assert jurisdiction and did not reach the issue of whether the college players were statutory employees under the NLRA. Instead, it dismissed the representation petition filed by the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), the Board said in an agency press release announcing the anxiously anticipated ruling.

Asserting jurisdiction would not promote labor stability due to the nature and structure of NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), the NLRB concluded. By statute, the Board does not have jurisdiction over state-run colleges and universities, which constitute 108 of the roughly 125 FBS teams. In addition, every school in the Big Ten, except Northwestern, is a state-run institution. As the NCAA and conference maintain substantial control over individual teams, the Board reasoned that asserting jurisdiction over a single team would not promote stability in labor relations across the league.

The NLRB was careful to note, however, that today’s decision “is narrowly focused to apply only to the players in this case and does not preclude reconsideration of this issue in the future.”

In response to the decision, Senate labor committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) stated, “The National Labor Relations Board has made the right decision for student athletes in this case, but it has done student athletes and all students 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.

The Vanderbilt University quarterback on scholarship, the Gonzaga University woman’s basketball player or the biologist earning a PhD, should be free to focus on earning college degrees, not fending off union organizers looking to increase union dues collections.” (362 NLRB No. 167; 13-RC 1 21359; Northwestern University, August 17, 2015.)

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