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Northwestern Football Players Lose Bid To Form First Union For Athletes


College football players cannot unionize - at least for now. Today, the National Labor Relations Board dismissed a case brought by football players at Northwestern University. They had argued that student athletes are actually employees who should be able to join a union. NPR's Cheryl Corley has the story.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: It could have been the first union for college athletes - the College Athletes Players Association, or CAPA. Last year, a regional director of the NLRB in Chicago ruled that Northwestern University football players on scholarship are employees. The university and the NCAA appealed that decision. Today, the full NLRB board dismissed the case. It said it did not have jurisdiction over state-run schools. Those schools make up the majority of the football schedules in which Northwestern, a private university, participates.

JOHN ADAM: Well, the NLRB, you know, to use a legal term, punted.

CORLEY: That's John Adam, attorney for CAPA.

ADAM: They decided not to decide the question on the merits.

CORLEY: What the NLRB did say was that a union in college sports would not promote uniformity and stability in labor relations, and the board did not want to single out just one team. Northwestern University spokesman Alan Cubbage said the university was both surprised and pleased with the decision.

ALAN CUBBAGE: Northwestern considers its students who participate in sports, including those who receive scholarships, to be students, first and foremost. They are not employees. They are students.

CORLEY: The NCAA prohibits players from earning income beyond their academic scholarships and any nominal stipends to cover the cost of college attendance. At a news conference last year, former Northwestern University quarterback Kain Colter said that he and other student athletes were employees who worked more than 40 hours a week practicing and playing games, work that can earn millions for universities.


KAIN COLTER: We are not taking these measures out of any mistreatment from Northwestern. However, we recognize that we need to eliminate unjust NCAA rules that create physical, academic and financial hardships for college athletes across the nation.

CORLEY: Colter and others argued that players, even with scholarships, struggled to pay for basic living expenses, and some suffer severe injuries. The players voted secretly on whether to join the union. Today's decision to dismiss the case means those votes will not be counted. CAPA attorney John Adam agrees there was no particular problem with Northwestern, but this push was to make sure that student athletes had a voice. He says that's an issue that CAPA will continue to pursue.

ADAM: You need a check and balance of some sort, and right now it's not there.

CORLEY: Adam said the fight isn't over, and the NLRB said it could reconsider the issue in the future. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.