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Northwestern Asks National Labor Relations Board to Overturn Regional Director's Ruling on Football Players' Unionization

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University today (April 9, 2014) asked the full National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to review and overturn the recent ruling by the NLRB Chicago Regional Director that Northwestern scholarship football players are employees and may be represented by a union.

Calling the decision by the regional director “unprecedented,” Northwestern’s brief states that the director overlooked or ignored key evidence that Northwestern presented showing that its student-athletes are primarily students, not employees. The appeal was filed today with the NLRB in Washington, D.C.

“Northwestern presented overwhelming evidence establishing that its athletic program is fully integrated with its academic mission, and that it treats its athletes as students first,” the brief states. “Based on the testimony of a single player, the regional director described Northwestern’s football program in a way that is unrecognizable from the evidence actually presented at the hearing,” the brief states.

Northwestern takes the position that the decision by the regional director improperly refused to apply the legal precedent established in the NLRB’s 2004 decision in Brown University, in which the NLRB held that the graduate assistants were primarily students, not employees.

In addition, the decision by the regional director ignored key evidence that Northwestern presented at the recent hearing in Chicago, specifically regarding the fact that academics is the primary mission of Northwestern for all of its students, including student-athletes. Pointing to the 97 percent graduation rate among Northwestern football players -- the highest among FBS schools in the country -- the brief states, “The remarkable graduation rate is not something that should merely ‘be noted’ in passing, as the regional director did, but instead demonstrates the emphasis that Northwestern places on the academic success of its student-athletes.”

The decision also discounted testimony from three former Northwestern football players that their academic activities were their top priority. All three testified at the Chicago hearing that they were permitted to leave practice early to go to class and that they were never directed to change their major or not to take a particular class because of potential conflict with football activities.

“Intercollegiate athletics at Northwestern are inextricably linked to the educational mission of the University and represent just one of the 480 co-curricular activities that Northwestern offers its students for the purpose of providing the broadest educational experience available. Northwestern views participation in intercollegiate athletics as part of the educational process,” the brief states.

The brief also points out that:

  • Northwestern provides four-year scholarships for student-athletes, not one-year scholarships, as is done at some other universities. The scholarship is extended for an additional year if the student-athlete is “redshirted,” or held out for a year.
  • Northwestern provides primary or secondary medical coverage for all student-athletes while they are enrolled, and for up to a year -- and sometimes longer -- after their eligibility expires.
  • The majority of the rules that the football team must follow mirror rules that are applied to all students at Northwestern. All Northwestern students, not just student-athletes, must adhere to policies on hazing, gambling, academic dishonesty, drug and alcohol use, information technology systems use and other policies.

“While we respect the NLRB process, we disagree strongly with the regional director’s opinion. We hope that the full NLRB will not only review this decision but will hold that Northwestern’s football scholarship athletes are not employees, and the petition seeking an election for the players to vote on union representation will be dismissed,” said Alan K. Cubbage, vice president for University Relations. “We applaud our players for bringing national attention to these important issues, but we strongly believe that unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address these concerns.”

The Northwestern brief is available on the Web at

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