In a unanimous decision, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) declined to assert jurisdiction in the case involving Northwestern University football players who argued that they were essentially employees of the institution and therefore eligible to form a collective-bargaining unit. The NLRB did not determine if the players were in fact statutory employees under Section 2(3) of the National Labor Relations Act; rather, the board held that asserting jurisdiction in the case would not advance the act's intent to promote stability in labor relations.
AGB welcomes the decision of the NLRB in this case. A full AGB Alert provides greater context for what this decision means for higher education and boards, but as we asserted in a 2014 amicus brief, declaring that student-athletes are employees "would undermine the relationship between students and their coaches and teachers. And it would entangle the board and courts in matters traditionally left to educators and thus would trench on academic freedom and disserve students." We stand by that assertion and our support of Northwestern University in this case.
The Northwestern case should not be viewed in isolation. Over the last few decades, intercollegiate athletics have enjoyed an enormous increase in popularity at all levels of competition. While greater public exposure has been a boon to the enterprise, the behavior of athletes, coaches, and administrators often make the news along with scores and standings.
The impact of intercollegiate athletics on the higher education experience has challenged those leading America’s colleges and universities. Aligning intercollegiate athletics more closely with the educational mission of colleges and universities is the responsibility of governing boards, who must hold those charged with administering these programs accountable to high standards.
AGB Statements are reviewed and approved by the Board of Directors of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. They are intended to guide boards in the governance; inform them of their roles and responsibilities; and clarify their relationships with presidents, administration, faculty, and others involved in the governance process. All AGB Statements are available online in downloadable, print-friendly forms.