The NLRB Declines Jurisdiction in College Athlete Unionization Case

The National Labor Relations Board has declined the opportunity to rule on whether or not college athletes are employees and can therefore be unionized. The petition was brought by the College Athletes Players Association which desired election as the union for Northwestern University college athletes.

CEI submitted an amicus brief in the case. In the brief, we pointed out the likely true motivation behind the push to unionize student athletes, and the problems it would cause for those students:

[T]he United Steelworkers union is driving this whole initiative. The Steelworkers, one of the largest industrial unions in North America, are underwriting and financing the effort and have been trying to unionize students for a decade. The goal? Access to some of the millions of dollars associated with college sports. And Stanford, with its long and storied athletic history, is a prime target for the Steelworkers, with nearly 10 local union chapters in the area.

Consider that unionizing means taking away students’ First Amendment freedom of expression, especially troubling in the arena of academic freedom. Section 9(a) of the Taft-Hartley Act would give the union exclusive bargaining rights. Students would have to go through the union, rather than deal directly with the school, leaving student athletes with less of a voice. Halting the communication between coaches and players over practice regimes, for example, and inserting the union representatives would not be welcome for many players. Agency fees certainly would not be appropriate, in any case.

Next, consider how unionization would undermine students’ freedom of association. With the union as their exclusive bargaining representative, student athletes would be barred from joining any other association—or even another union—to represent them.

Third, a union would siphon cash from students’ bank accounts, when it has been established that these students are already recipients of grant-in-aid.

Moreover, once a union is established, it remains in place as the players’ monopoly representative long after those who voted for the union have graduated. Those who follow in their wake are stuck with the union, whether they want it or not. The overwhelming majority of workers in both the private sector and in government inherited collective representation in this manner. In a collegiate athletics setting, where players’ (temporary) eligibility is gone within four years, this would be an especially serious problem.

The decision, while welcome, is narrowly focused on this case. It leaves the question of whether or not student athletes can unionize open. We can expect another case at some point.