NLRB Turns Its Back on Northwestern

The National Labor Relations Board has chimed in on the effort by Northwestern football players to unionize, and the NLRB has failed. What did it do? Absolutely nothing. The football players voted back in April on the question of forming a union. The results of the vote were impounded pending the formal approval process by the NLRB, but it was widely accepted that the majority of the 75 eligible players did vote in favor of a union. That decision was upheld by a regional NLRB field office, ruling that based on hours spent in the service of the university, the players could be certified as employees. That regional decision was subject to approval by the national labor office.

That gets us to this week, four full months later, and the national office of the NLRB finally got around to its verdict. It decided to not rule at all. Really? We waited all this time for you to take a pass?

The players’ stance was an interesting one. By having the option to unionize they were seeking an increase in benefits. They wanted better concussion diagnosis protocols. They asked for open ended health coverage for players that suffered long term injuries while playing football for the school. Currently, most players are cut off from insurance coverage once they are no longer playing, even if it is an injury that caused them to leave the football program. For decades, players sacrificed their bodies for football, but if it went badly, the school was free to cast them aside and make them find their own way to medical coverage.

They wanted an open ended scholarship system. If a player is injured and can no longer play, he most often was dropped from the team’s scholarship roster. It makes sense. The NCAA only allows each team to carry so many scholarships, and no one is going to use those limited numbers on people who no longer play football. But that also forced players/former players, who wanted to continue their education to find a way to pay for it themselves, a prohibitive measure by any standard. There was no reason the school couldn’t pick up at least some of the tab, considering the millions they make each year off these young players. Shouldn’t we be applauding these “jocks” who want to actually fulfill their academic goals?

They wanted some help with the cost of attendance for their chosen school. Contrary to common belief, an athletic scholarship historically did not cover all costs for the student athletes. It covered tuition, books, room/board, and a limited meal plan during the season. Anyone who has attended college knows there are profoundly more costs to going to school than that. The proposed union wanted the right to negotiate with the school to fill in the financial gaps.

They wanted representation at the decision making levels within the schools, conferences and the NCAA as a whole.

You know what the Northwestern players did not ask for in their petition? Money. That’s right. For all of the debate about paying players, these guys were smart enough to realize that the concept of revenue sharing was a potential torpedo to the side of their newly launched boat and they left it out. Now, I am in favor of the concept of players getting some money back for the millions the schools make off the revenue sports each year. However, I am quick to acknowledge that for all of the debaters, pontificators and sports analysts that bloviate about the subject, not a single one of them has devised a plan that:

  1. Will be financially balanced across all regions/conferences/teams and take into account cost of living differences creating recruiting advantages and disadvantages.
  2. Will not sacrifice all other scholarship athletes for the sake of football and basketball players
  3. Will not violate federal Title IX regulations, that would cost the schools millions in federal funding.
  4. Will not bury mid-major programs and G5 schools that cannot financially keep up with the big boys of the Power 5 conferences.

To this point, all any can come up with is general agreement or disagreement with the idea of revenue sharing for players, but the devil is in the details.

The Northwestern petitioners were astute enough to see this. That’s why they are at Northwestern, isn’t it? They sought a voice in the medical and educational issues that were universal to players across the country, whether you are the starting quarterback or the long snapper on field goal attempts.

So how could the NLRB turn a deaf ear to what seems like such a reasonable addressing of legitimate issues? The NLRB simply ruled that because Northwestern is a private school, the board has no role in addressing an issue regarding unionization. That’s it. That was the basis of the decision. That’s what we waited four months for. We are supposed to believe that if the appeal had come from the University of Washington, the board would have made a binding ruling that would have impacted the future of college athletes going forward. Of the 125 schools eligible to compete for a college bowl game last year, only 17 are private schools like Northwestern. The reality is, the NLRB took the cheap way out. They didn’t want to have a hand in what some see as a revolution on behalf of thousands of college athletes.

The irony is that, stoked by fear of intervention from the federal government, most conferences have begun to trickle in some of these added benefits, like cost of attendance money, on their own. But there is still more to do.

So where do the players go from here? They could file suit in federal court seeking a ruling that trumps the NLRB sitting this issue out. The problem there is that with the tortoise-like speed of the federal court system, the primary plaintiffs would have graduated and have no standing in the process. ESPN college basketball analyst and NCAA antagonizer Jay Bilas says the next step is for college football players across the country to stage a walk out until they get heard. That, of course, is absurd. A third string cornerback is not going to risk his one shot at playing football and going to college for this grandiose idea.

The best option is to start over with a public school and do it quickly. Do it with a school of great educational significance like the Stanfords, Dukes and Northwesterns of the private school world. Force the NLRB to put up or shut up. What these young athletes were asking for was a seat at the table where the big decisions impacting their futures are made. Isn’t that what any of us expect from our kids when we send them off to college? To take ownership of their future? These thoughtful student athletes deserve that same voice.