College Players Can’t Unionize But Still Win, Prof Says

BUFFALO, N.Y.—While the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) unanimous decision to dismiss Northwestern University’s football player’s call to form a union is a setback for players wanting to organize, a University of Buffalo sports law expert says the players actually accomplished some key goals. 

“While it might appear that the Northwestern football players lost the battle for representation as their petition was dismissed by the NLRB clearly they have won the war,” said Nellie Drew, adjunct faculty member who teachers several courses in the university’s law school.

NCAA has returned to the four-year scholarship contract form from the one-year renewable deals that left even the most elite athletes at risk of losing their scholarship due to injury, she said.

“Schools are now free to pay athletes stipends to meet costs above and beyond room and board—which, in some instances, can be significant. Even food restrictions have been revisited, and the prospect of better health care is also on the horizon.

She added that the reforms can be traced directly back to efforts of Akin Colter, the Northwestern quarterback who galvanized the unionization movement at the university.

NLRB’s Aug. 17 decision overturns a ruling from the NLRB’s Chicago office, which said scholarship athletes of private institutions were university employees and had the right to unionize. The decision does not make an official ruling on whether student-athletes are employees; rather, it dismisses the NLRBs jurisdiction and thus the players’ right to unionize.