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Northwestern Football Players Can't Unionize (Yet), NLRB Rules

But other college athletes might be able to in the future, since their status as employees remains undecided.

Posted on August 17, 2015, at 2:47 p.m. ET

Jeffrey Phelps / AP

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has unanimously ruled that Northwestern University's football players may not, for now, form a union, overturning a March 2014 decision by a regional NLRB director.

The NLRB ruling did not make a determination about whether or not the players are employees of the university, allowing for the possibility that other college athletes — or graduate student workers — may form unions in the future. Had the Board approved the unionization bid, the ruling could have led to votes at other private institutions. As it stands, the secret (sealed) ballots Northwestern players cast more than a year ago will be destroyed.

This was the first case before the National Labor Relations Board in which college athletes attempted to unionize.

The NLRB ruled that because many athletes in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) cannot unionize, it would create instability in sports leagues for it to assert jurisdiction in this case.

"By statute the Board does not have jurisdiction over state-run colleges and universities, which constitute 108 of the roughly 125 [Football Bowl Subdivision] 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," the 16-page decision states.

State labor boards have jurisdiction over public schools, while the NLRB regulates private institutions.

The players, led by former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, were hoping to gain medical coverage for sports-related needs, compensation for sponsorships, and increased support for scholarships and degree-completion for current and former players, through organization.

"We applaud our players for bringing national attention to these important issues, but we believe strongly that unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes," said a Northwestern spokesperson in a statement.