NLRB Rules That Northwestern Football Players Cannot Form a Union

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Meeting with Tim Waters (United Steelworkers), Ramogi Huma (founder of the National College Players Association) and Kain Colter (former Northwestern's quarterback) last year about Northwestern Football Players push for the right to unionize.

Today the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)'s has denied Northwestern University's football players' application to form a union. Here is my stance on this misguided decision.

I am disappointed by the decision of the NLRB to overturn an earlier ruling allowing Northwestern football players to unionize.

The latest NLRB decision is based on the claim that allowing one school's athletes to unionize would upset competition with other schools -- it did not come to a decision as to whether college athletes are employees.

As I have said in the past, these athletes dedicate 40-plus hours a week to their sport, helping to raise millions of dollars for the University each year. They deserve to stand on an even playing field with the University in negotiating for better health coverage while they are playing for their school and after their careers end, for guaranteed 4-year scholarships, and for a say in practice time and intensity. This decision denies them that opportunity.

Last year, I had a chance to meet Kain Colter, the former Northwestern quarterback who mobilized this effort. His candor, humility, and commitment to this effort -- even though he can no longer directly benefit from the formation of a union -- was inspiring.

Northwestern University is one of the best universities in the nation, and its players benefit from tremendous opportunities inside and outside the classroom and in life after football. That being said, the demands these players have made are reasonable and modest, and they have been denied an opportunity to form a union. As Tim Waters of the United Steelworkers said last year, "just because [Northwestern is] a good employer doesn't mean they're not an employer."

To a large extent, I believe the NCAA was to blame for the problems Northwestern players were trying to address. But the NCAA's stranglehold on college athletes and their schools is beginning to loosen.

Last August, the NCAA granted partial autonomy to the Big 10 Conference, of which Northwestern is a member, and four other major athletic conferences. Those conferences then elected to give their schools the option of offering scholarships that meet the full cost of attendance, ensuring that student-athletes are not left with thousands in debt each year on top of their full-time jobs in sports. The Big 10 has also followed Northwestern's lead in guaranteeing 4-year scholarships to its recruits (NU has done so since 2011). And the Pac-12 Conference guaranteed 4 years of medical coverage to student-athletes injured while competing for their schools. I urge all eligible schools to take those same steps.

The Northwestern unionization effort has played a major role in moving college athletics in the right direction. That being said, I am sorry that the NLRB has decided against college athletes seeking a seat at the table, and I look forward to further efforts that would allow players the right to bargain collectively.