Declining Jurisdiction

Why Unionization Should Not Be the Ultimate Goal for Collegiate Athletes

Since its inception in the early twentieth century, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”) has been charged with overseeing organized collegiate athletic competitions. Over the past century, however, the landscape of collegiate athletics has changed dramatically. What was once a non-profit organization comprised of only a few member universities, is now composed of over 1,000 universities, bringing in billions of dollars each year. As the popularity of collegiate athletics has continued to grow, the students competing on behalf of their universities have begun to question their designation as “student-athletes,” which under NCAA rules prohibits them from receiving any form of monetary compensation for their athletic participation. While there were previous attempts to challenge the NCAA’s authority, it was not until the Northwestern University football players petitioned to the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) in 2014 that a group of student-athletes sought to be recognized as employees of their respective university. By seeking NLRB recognition as employees, the Northwestern University football players hoped to unionize, which would thereby give them the ability to collectively bargain with the university to alter the conditions of their athletic participation. Despite the football players’ success in gaining recognition as employees of Northwestern University by the Regional Board, the Review Board declined to exercise its jurisdiction to decide the matter. Had the Review Board upheld the Regional Board’s decision, it would have severely undermined the current structure of the NCAA. With many questions left unanswered by the Review Board’s decision, and the opportunity for recognition as employees not having been foreclosed to future collegiate athletes, this Note proposes that unionization should not be the ultimate goal for student-athletes. Rather, student-athletes, the NCAA, and individual universities should aim to create student-athlete advisory committees for each athletic conference, which would consist of student-athlete representatives from each university within a particular athletic conference. Doing so will provide an alternative avenue for encouraging meaningful conversations between student-athletes, their respective universities, and the NCAA. Such a model would not prohibit athletes from unionizing, thus lessening the power that the NCAA currently exerts over student-athletes, and would provide an avenue for allowing the NCAA to address the legitimate concerns of student-athletes so that unionization may be avoided altogether.

The full text of this Note is available to download as a PDF.