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National labor board dismisses ruling that would have allowed college athletes to unionize

CHICAGO — The National Labor Relations Board on Monday overturned a historic ruling that gave Northwestern University football players the go-head to form the nation’s first college athletes’ union, saying the prospect of union and non-union teams could throw off the competitive balance in college football.

The decision throws out a March 2014 ruling by a regional NLRB director in Chicago who said that college the football players are effectively school employees and entitled to organize. Monday’s decision did not directly address the question of whether football players are employees.

The labor dispute goes to the heart of American college sports, where universities and conferences reap billions of dollars, mostly through broadcast contracts, by relying on amateurs who are not paid. In other countries, college sports are small-time club affairs, while elite youth athletes often turn pro as teens.

The unanimous ruling by the five-member National Labor Relations Board concludes that letting Northwestern football players unionize could lead to different standards at different schools — from amounts of money players receive to the amount of time they can practice. That would, it says, would create the competitive imbalances.

Monday’s 16-page ruling cites federal law and contends that a unionized football players at Northwestern would no promote the “uniformity” and “stability” between workers and management that it says is the goal of U.S. labor relations law.

While NLRB decisions are sometimes split, the three Democrat and two Republican board member all agreed to Monday’s ruling.

The ruling applies to private schools, like Northwestern, which is a member of the powerful Big Ten Conference. Public universities do not fall under the agency’s jurisdiction, though union activists have said they wanted the example of Northwestern would inspire unionization campaigns by athletes at state schools.

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