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NLRB Leaves Open Question Whether Scholarship Football Players are "Employees"

Published:  August 19, 2015

On August 17, 2015, the National Labor Relations Board ("NLRB") issued a unanimous decision declining to exercise jurisdiction over a case brought by Northwestern University's scholarship football players seeking to unionize.  The decision reviewed the Chicago Regional Director's conclusion in March of 2014 that these players are "employees" within the meaning of the National Labor Relations Act ("NLRA") with the right to organize for purposes of collective bargaining.  The NLRB's reasoning was that exercising jurisdiction over the players "would not promote stability in labor relations," given that Northwestern's competition in college football is comprised primarily of public universities not subject to the provisions of the NLRA or the jurisdiction of the NLRB.  The NLRB left open the question whether scholarship football players are "employees" for purposes of the NLRA, limited its decision to college football, and stated that it may revisit the jurisdictional issue in the future.  This leaves open the possibility that student athletes in other sports may be recognized as employees entitled to unionize by the same Board.  Given the overlap of the definition of "employee" under the various federal employment laws, such a decision would have substantial consequences for private universities.

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