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NLRB Dismisses Northwestern Players' Petition To Form A Union

(CBS) Northwestern football players' quest to form a union is over.

The national office of the National Labor Relations Board on Monday dismissed the Northwestern players' petition to form the first union for college athletes, a move that overturned the regional office's decision in spring 2014 that allowed them the opportunity to do so. The vote among five board members was unanimous, the NLRB said.

The anonymous vote that the Northwestern players took on whether to form a union will remain sealed.

The difference between union and non-union teams could've tilted the competitive balance in college football, the NLRB said. It doesn't have jurisdiction over state-run schools. The ruling applies to private universities like Northwestern.

The ruling concluded letting Northwestern football players unionize could lead to different standards at different schools -- from the amount of money players receive to the amount of time they can practice.

"The board held that asserting jurisdiction would not promote labor stability due to the nature and structure of NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS)," the NLRB said in a statement. "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 held that asserting jurisdiction over a single team would not promote stability in labor relations across the league.

"This decision is narrowly focused to apply only to the players in this case and does not preclude reconsideration of this issue in the future."

Sports attorney Eldon Ham says, "That's the issue the NLRB was wrestling with because they didn't say they weren't employees, they just said it upsets this schematic of NCAA football in a way that it's impossible to administer fairly."


The labor dispute comes at a time when universities and conference make millions of dollars off of college sports, in large part because of big-money TV contracts, off of athletes who aren't compensated.

Northwestern University officials said they were pleased with the board's ruling.

"Our students are just that. They're students. They're not employees. They're students," university spokesman Alan Cubbage said. "The university believes very strongly that unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address concerns that may be raised by student-athletes."

"Northwestern's position remains that participation in athletics is part of the overall educational experience for our student-athletes, not a separate activity. Therefore, we intend to continue to work with our students, and others, to address the issues regarding the long-term health impact of playing intercollegiate sports, providing additional grant-in-aid support and providing academic support and opportunities for student-athletes," he added. "The welfare of our student-athletes is paramount here, and we're very proud of that. We are committed to ensuring their health, safety and well-being and that they are provided with every resource possible to grow and develop as well-rounded individuals. We now need to examine these issues nationally to ensure that student-athletes nationally are provided the same opportunities as those at Northwestern."

Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter led the effort to form a union, and he told USA Today he is disappointed by the ruling, but he noted the board did not rule on the merits of the players' petition, only declined to assert jurisdiction.

The Northwestern players' votes on whether to actually form a union will never be counted. A key union organizer told CBS 2's Derrick Blakley that it is disappointing.

"The fact is that Northwestern football players took a union vote, no matter what happens down the line, that happened. It is historical and it's part of their courage," said Ramogi Huma of the National College Players Association.

"A lot of people want to make this out to be a huge loss, I don't think it's a huge loss. Obviously it's not the outcome that we wanted, but they didn't rule against us, which is huge," he said. "What I can say is kind of the whole legacy of this whole thing is for the first time I can remember you have players coming together and standing up for what they believe in."

Because the board did not rule on the merits of the players' bid to form a union, they can try again.

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