Board dismisses ruling to allow college athletes to unionize

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Making Sense of Northwestern Decision

CHICAGO (AP) -- The National Labor Relations Board on Monday overturned a historic ruling that gave Northwestern University football players the go-ahead to form the nation's first college athletes' union, saying the prospect of union and non-union teams could throw off the competitive balance in college football.

The decision throws out a March 2014 ruling by a regional NLRB director in Chicago who said that the football players are effectively school employees and entitled to organize. Monday's decision did not directly address the question of whether football players are employees.

The labor dispute goes to the heart of American college sports, where universities and conferences reap billions of dollars, mostly through broadcast contracts, by relying on amateurs who are not paid. In other countries, college sports are small-time club affairs, while elite youth athletes often turn pro as teens.

The unanimous ruling by the five-member National Labor Relations Board concludes that letting Northwestern football players unionize could lead to different standards at different schools - from amounts of money players receive to the amount of time they can practice. That would, it says, create the competitive imbalances.

The ruling applies to private schools, like Northwestern, which is a member of the powerful Big Ten Conference. Public universities do not fall under the agency's jurisdiction, though union activists have said they hope Northwestern's example inspires unionization campaigns by athletes at state schools.

Northwestern became the focal point of the labor fight in January 2014 when a handful of football players called the NCAA a "dictatorship" and announced plans to form the first U.S. labor union for college athletes. Quarterback Kain Colter detailed the College Athletes Players Association at a news conference, flanked by leaders of the United Steelworkers union that has lent its organizing expertise and presumably will help bankroll the court fight.

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Northwestern football, unionization verdict
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Board dismisses ruling to allow college athletes to unionize
Northwestern football player Justin Jackson walks to practice at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside campus on Monday, Aug. 17, 2015, in Kenosha, Wi. The National Labor Relations Board on Monday \overturned a historic ruling that gave Northwestern University football players the go-ahead to form the nation's first college athletes' union, saying the prospect of union and non-union teams could throw off the competitive balance in college football.(AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)
Northwestern football players gesture during practice at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside campus on Monday, Aug. 17, 2015, in Kenosha, Wi. The National Labor Relations Board on Monday overturned a historic ruling that gave Northwestern University football players the go-ahead to form the nation's first college athletes' union, saying the prospect of union and non-union teams could throw off the competitive balance in college football.(AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)
Northwestern football players are reflected in a helmet during drills at practice at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside campus on Monday, Aug. 17, 2015, in Kenosha, Wi. The National Labor Relations Board on Monday, Aug. 17, 2015, overturned a historic ruling that gave Northwestern University football players the go-ahead to form the nation's first college athletes' union, saying the prospect of union and non-union teams could throw off the competitive balance in college football. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)
Northwestern football players Shane Mertz (70) and Adam DePietro (73) walk to practice at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside campus on Monday, Aug. 17, 2015, in Kenosha, Wi. The National Labor Relations Board on Monday overturned a historic ruling that gave Northwestern University football players the go-ahead to form the nation's first college athletes' union, saying the prospect of union and non-union teams could throw off the competitive balance in college football.(AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)
FILE - In this May 6, 2015, file photo, NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy speaks during an interview in Indianapolis. The National Labor Relations Board has dismissed a historic ruling that Northwestern University football players are school employees who are entitled to form what would be the nation's first union of college athletes. The NLRB released its decision Monday, Aug. 17, 2015. The losing side does not have an option to appeal.(AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File)
Northwestern football player Matt Alvita throws during practice at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside campus on Monday, Aug. 17, 2015, in Kenosha, Wi. The National Labor Relations Board on Monday overturned a historic ruling that gave Northwestern University football players the go-ahead to form the nation's first college athletes' union, saying the prospect of union and non-union teams could throw off the competitive balance in college football. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)
FILE - In this April 1, 2014, file photo, Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald speaks at a news conference after his football team participated in an NCAA college spring practice in Evanston, Ill. The National Labor Relations Board has dismissed a historic ruling that Northwestern University football players are school employees who are entitled to form what would be the nation's first union of college athletes. The NLRB released its decision Monday, Aug. 17, 2015. The losing side does not have an option to appeal.(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)
In this Nov. 8, 2014 file photo Michigan running back De'Veon Smith (4) runs against Northwestern during an NCAA college football game in Evanston, Ill. A Republican lawmaker in Michigan introduced a bill Dec. 2, 2014 to block collective bargaining for athletes that is on the fast track through this lame-duck legislative session, though there are no reports of such efforts at any of Michigan's public or private universities and opponents say it's a non-issue in their state. Athletes at Northwestern, a private school, voted in April to form the nation's first union for student athletes, a case the National Labor Relations Board has not yet ruled on. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)
Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, questions witnesses at the House Committee on Education and Workforce on college athletes forming unions, on May 8, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)
Stanford Director of Athletics Bernard Muir is seen at the House Committee on Education and Workforce on college athletes forming unions, on May 8, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)
Three unidentified officials from the National Labor Relations Board depart Northwestern University after football players voted on the student athlete union question Friday, April 25, 2014, in Evanston, Ill. Northwestern football players cast secret ballots Friday in an on-campus hall adjacent to their home stadium on whether to form the nation's first union for college athletes. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Northwestern football player Deonte Gibson, left, does a little dance for photographers and reporters as he and teammate C.J. Robbins walk into McGaw Hall, where voting is taking place on whether to form the nation's first union for college athletes, Friday, April 25, 2014, in Evanston, Ill. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
FILE - In this April 25, 2014, file photo, Northwestern football player Shane Mertz walks into McGaw Hall, where voting is taking place on whether to form the nation's first union for college athletes, in Evanston, Ill. The National Labor Relations Board on Monday, Aug. 17, 2015, overturned a historic ruling that gave Northwestern University football players the go-ahead to form the nation's first college athletes' union, saying the prospect of union and non-union teams could throw off the competitive balance in college football.(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)
Former Northwestern University football player Michael Odom talks to reporters as his former teammates vote on the student athlete union question Friday, April 25, 2014, in Evanston, Ill. Northwestern football players cast secret ballots Friday in an on-campus hall adjacent to their home stadium on whether to form the nation's first union for college athletes. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Unidentified Northwestern football players walk between their locker room and McGaw Hall, where voting is taking place on the student athlete union question Friday, April 25, 2014, in Evanston, Ill. Northwestern football players cast secret ballots Friday in an on-campus hall adjacent to their home stadium on whether to form the nation's first union for college athletes. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Northwestern University spokesman Alan K. Cubbage responds to a question after football players voted on the student athlete union question Friday, April 25, 2014, in Evanston, Ill. Northwestern football players cast secret ballots Friday in an on-campus hall adjacent to their home stadium on whether to form the nation's first union for college athletes. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Former Northwestern University football quarterback Kain Colter, right, and Ramogi Huma, founder and president of the National College Players Association arrive on Capitol Hill in Washington Wednesday, April, 2, 2014. Members of a group seeking to unionize college athletes are looking for allies on Capitol Hill as they brace for an appeal of a ruling that said full scholarship athletes at Northwestern University are employees who have the right to form a union. Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter _ the face of a movement to give college athletes the right to unionize _ and Ramogi Huma, the founder and president of the National College Players Association, scheduled meetings Wednesday with lawmakers. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)
FILE - In this April 6, 2014, file photo, NCAA President Mark Emmert answers a question at a news conference in Arlington, Texas. The National Labor Relations Board has dismissed a historic ruling that Northwestern University football players are school employees who are entitled to form what would be the nation's first union of college athletes. The NLRB released its decision Monday, Aug. 17, 2015. The losing side does not have an option to appeal.(AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)
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Regional NLRB Director Peter Sung Ohr issued a stunning decision three months later, saying Northwestern football players who receive scholarships fit the definition of employees under federal law, and therefore should be able to unionize. A month later, football players cast secret ballots on whether to unionize. Those ballots were sealed during the appeal and will now be destroyed.

Monday's 16-page ruling cites federal law and contends that unionized football players at Northwestern would not promote the "uniformity" and "stability" between workers and management that it says is the goal of U.S. labor relations law.

While NLRB decisions are sometimes split, the three Democrat and two Republican board members all agreed on Monday's decision.

Under U.S. law, an employee is regarded as someone who, among other things, receives compensation for a service and is under the direct control of managers. In Northwestern's case, Ohr concluded coaches are equivalent to business managers and scholarships are a form of pay.

The ruling was welcome news for the NCAA, the dominant umbrella organization for U.S. college athletics. The NCAA has been under increasing scrutiny over its amateurism rules and has been in court fighting lawsuits from former athletes over everything from head injuries to revenue earned based on the use of their likenesses in video games.

The NCAA recently cleared the way for the five biggest conferences, including the Big Ten, to add player stipends to help athletes defray some of their expenses. Southeastern Conference schools, for example, will give some athletes $3,000 to $5,500 each on top of a scholarship that pays for tuition, room, board and books.

Northwestern, the Big Ten and the NCAA all argued against the unionization effort, saying that lumping college athletes into the same category as factory workers would transform amateur athletics for the worse. At one point, Northwestern administrators sent a document to players outlining potential pitfalls, noting that player strikes could lead to the spectacle of replacement players.

The specific goals of the players association, or CAPA, include guaranteeing coverage of sports-related medical expenses for current and former players, reducing head injuries.

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