Unionization halted at Northwestern, NLRB won’t assert jurisdiction


Photo: Kelby Wingert/Iowa State Daily Illustration: Quentin Bangston/Iowa State Daily

Though Northwestern football players unionizing is a different situation than what Iowa State’s players would face, it begs the question of whether student-athletes would ever unionize at Iowa State and what it would mean for the future of the athletic department.

Max Dible

Per a decision by the National Labor Relations (NLRB) Review Board, Northwestern will not serve as the formative grounds for unionization in college sports, and it appears that the issue has been essentially laid to rest. 

Last year, the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), in conjunction with Northwestern football players, delivered the first blow to the NCAA and its member universities in what had potential to evolve into a multi-year power struggle — one that could have reshaped college athletics forever.

The NLRB regional director on May 26, 2014, deemed Wildcat football players employees of the private university who had the right to unionize, an unprecedented decision.

The appeal

But on Aug. 17, 2015, the NLRB Review Board, which handled Northwestern’s appeal of the director’s ruling, chose not to assert jurisdiction. The five-member panel’s unanimous decision amounted to anything but, as it declined to support or overturn the ruling, instead opting to do nothing at all.

The consequences? That the paradigm and power structure of the NCAA will remain the same as they have always been for student athletes at universities public or private.

“In the decision, the Board held that asserting jurisdiction would not promote labor stability due to the nature and structure of NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS),” the NLRB wrote in its decision.

“By statute the Board does not have jurisdiction over state-run colleges and universities, which constitute 108 of the roughly 125 FBS teams. The Board held that asserting jurisdiction over a single team would not promote stability in labor relations across the league.”

The Board touched several times on the idea of labor stability.” A cornerstone element of that notion is competitive balance — creating a fair and competitive atmosphere to promote quality sports entertainment, which is crucial to maintaining fan interest. 

“Competitive equality doesn’t exist right now, and we have data to support that,” Ramogi Huma, CAPA president and a former linebacker at UCLA, told ESPN’s Outside the Lines. “To use a hollow argument to deny players equal protection under the law is disappointing.”

Revenue generated from athletics ranges sharply from one university to the next. Per a USA Today financial report, Texas — receiving no subsidized dollars — generated nearly $93 million more in revenue than Iowa State last year, which received almost $2 million in subsidies.

“I think you have to define competitive balance. Life is not perfect and life will never be equal. You hope life is fair,” said ISU athletic director Jamie Pollard, who has made clear his aversion to student athlete unionization.

“I’m not ready to say (unionization) would have been an advantage because it would have been a mess trying to figure it out.”


Had the Board upheld its director’s initial ruling, the argument would have made its way into the legal system — unless Northwestern chose to stop appealing, which is unlikely — and from there, the ruling would have been appealed up the chain.

Had the decision held through that legal process, the end game — allowing student athletes at private universities a vote on whether or not to unionize — would have become a reality.

The Board did add that its decision not to assert jurisdiction on the matter does not preclude revisiting the issue in the future.

Even if the Board had ruled in support of the director’s decision, the result would not necessarily have manifested in changes for players at public universities like Iowa State.

State institutions are subject to the labor legislation enacted by their home state, vastly complicating the issue of the unionization of college athletes and making it an unlikely proposition.

But that doesn’t mean athletic directors of state schools weren’t keenly interested parties to a debate that has in large part defined a generation of college sport in social and political contexts.

“I don’t know if anything is ever put to rest. It’s an area right now that just has a lot of tentacles for people to get in under the hood and cause problems,” Pollard said.

“The decision surprised me, but I’m glad they did it, because I think (unionization) would have just caused more confusion in an already confused marketplace.”

State of the student-athlete

Pollard said he hasn’t sensed “a growing angst” from his football and basketball players that they believe they’ve been taken advantage as student athletes — a distinction which precludes them from drawing any financial gain beyond a scholarship from the multi-billion dollar business constructed atop the foundation of their athletic prowess.

A recent ISU football transfer agreed.

“I think Division I players today get a little beside themselves and don’t realize what we really got that other people don’t have,” said linebacker Jordan Harris, who arrived at Iowa State last season by way of Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Mississippi.

“I just feel blessed to be in this position right now.”

An argument can be made that players like Harris may fear speaking out on the topic, stigmatizing themselves with coaches and administrators as ungrateful or petulant. To do so could theoretically damage their prospects on the only platform that exists for them to showcase their talent to professional leagues.

But Pollard, who has enacted a system of review to combat such concerns, doesn’t think fear plays as a motivator whatsoever in the relative silence he’s observed on the topic.

“We have anonymous evaluations,” Pollard said. “There are some wild things that get said in there, but never something related to this issue.”

Better end of the deal?

Iowa State has never been an NFL factory line mass producing professional talent. In the Paul Rhoads era, only 20 players have donned an NFL uniform in any capacity.

Only nine of those have made a 53-man roster at the game’s highest level. 

It is only the marquee players who leave school early to play professionally that are potentially taken advantage of in the current system. They accumulate their initial fortunes on athletic talent alone, not the educational compensation they receive in college — which they frequently choose not to even finish.

While the number of top-level players being denied a large portion of their market value at the NCAA level is minimal, the money surrounding that denial is enormous.

The NCAA generated $989 million in revenues in the 2014 fiscal year, per its own financial statement. Oregon, Texas, Michigan and Alabama all generated revenues of more than $150 million in 2014, according to USA Today. 

But Pollard, who infrequently encounters athletes possessing immediate pro-caliber talent and immediate national marketability in central Iowa, pointed out that whatever perceived inequities might exist now, they would multiply and evolve if players were classified as employees and began getting paid.

“You think there’s inequities today? Think of the inequities if I start deciding that the quarterback is worth more than the backup punter and scout team player,” Pollard said.

Then there’s the notion of the employee/employer relationship. If a player failed to perform under that system, it would be handled the same way it is in the NFL when a player fails to live up to expectations.

“You’re fired, and I’ll fire you in the middle of the season,” Pollard said bluntly. “We aren’t prepared to deal with that, and neither are the student athletes.”

A solution would be to allow for a free market wherein players can pursue professional careers absent any limitations. But the NBA restricts high school players from entering the draft for at least a year, while the NFL requires three years of collegiate experience before a player is eligible to move on to the pros.

“The issue is the NBA doesn’t want them yet. The NBA (and the NFL) have got a great thing going because they have a minor league system that they’re not funding,” Pollard said.

Coaches and general managers lose their jobs when they make bad draft decisions. The evaluators’ temporary obstruction of the American dreams of high school players allows for more game data with which to make an informed decision. 

Because there is no minor-league alternative for college-aged players aspiring to the pros, they are left with few choices other than to pursue college sports. 

But it’s worth pointing out that collegiate brands also help elevate star athletes to a degree of marketability they can leverage at the next level. 

“Monté Morris, no one had heard of. Michigan State didn’t recruit him. We gave him a pretty good platform to have an internship to get him to this spot,” Pollard said of the ISU point guard, widely considered now as a potential NBA prospect.

“Johnny Manziel almost came on a recruiting visit to Iowa State. Nobody knew who he was (before Texas A&M).”

The autonomy decision

The NCAA’s autonomy decision gave Power-5 conference member schools, as well as Notre Dame, the ability to implement policies to enhance the student-athlete experience. 

Attempts at enhancement had formerly been shot down by the smaller schools, which couldn’t afford to make such improvements and outnumber the Power-5 contingent in voting matters. 

The NCAA referenced these changes in its response to the NLRB’s ruling. 

“The National Labor Relations Board’s decision to reject jurisdiction and dismiss the union petition in this case is appropriate,” NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy wrote. “In recent years, we have provided college athletes with multi-year scholarships, free education for former college athletes and unlimited meals.”

As soon as autonomy was enacted, the cost of attendance amendment was passed with speed. 

“The autonomy thing allowed us to address those issues real quick, some of which were outlined in the union case.” Pollard explained. “We would have never got (to full cost of attendance) without the autonomy.”

Benefits of autonomy

Iowa State and the rest of the Big 12 now provide all scholarship athletes with full cost of attendance, an increase of $2,430 annually at Iowa State. The school also provides a $500 stipend to non-contiguous students — those who are from a state that is neither Iowa nor shares a geographical border with Iowa.

“I think it’s great because that will definitely help with gas money and extra food like groceries outside of football,” said ISU kicker Cole Netten. “A bunch of kids need flights home for breaks and stuff like that, so that’s huge for them.”

Iowa State was already providing scholarships for former athletes who desired a return to school as well as an extended meal plan for scholarship players and walk-ons alike.

The next change on the autonomy agenda is free flights for parents or guardians on official visits for football players. Men’s and women’s basketball players are already beneficiaries of that perk at Iowa State.

So while the notion of unionization has been all but buried by the NLRB Review Board’s choice not to assert jurisdiction, the movement was not a failure.

“Me and Ramogi and a bunch of other people saw (the decision) going differently, but this isn’t the end,” Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter told Outside the Lines.

“This isn’t going to stop us from pushing for college athlete rights. That will eventually come. If it’s not going to happen this way, we’ll get it another way.”