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College athletes lose the right to organize battle, but win the benefits war, UB sports law expert says

While Northwestern football players may have lost the battle in their efforts to unionize, they have definitely won the war, says UB's Nellie Drew.

Release Date: August 18, 2015

“Schools are now free to pay athletes stipends to meet costs above and beyond room and board – which, in some instances, can be significant. Even food restrictions have been revisited, and the prospect of better health care is also on the horizon.”
Nellie Drew, sports law expert
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – The National Labor Relations Board’s unanimous decision dismissing Northwestern University football players from forming a union is a setback for the players’ hopes of organizing, but a University at Buffalo sports law expert says the players’ attempts to form a union have significantly improved their status and accomplished some of their key goals.

“While it might appear that the Northwestern football players lost the battle for representation as their petition was dismissed by the NLRB, clearly they have won the war,” according to Nellie Drew, adjunct faculty member who teaches several courses in UB’s Law School.

The NCAA has returned to the four-year scholarship contract form from the one-year renewable deals which left even the most elite athletes at risk of losing their scholarship due to injury, Drew said.

“Schools are now free to pay athletes stipends to meet costs above and beyond room and board – which, in some instances, can be significant.  Even food restrictions have been revisited, and the prospect of better health care is also on the horizon.”

All of these reforms, she says, can be traced directly to efforts of Kain Colter, the Northwestern quarterback who galvanized the unionization movement at Northwestern.

The NLRB’s Aug. 17 decision overturns a ruling from the NLRB's Chicago office, which said scholarship athletes of private institutions were university employees and had the right to unionize. Monday's decision does not make an official ruling on whether student-athletes are employees; it merely dismisses the NLRB's jurisdiction and thus the players' right to unionize.

Drew said it was “interesting” that the board reserved its authority to revisit this issue, cautioning several times that its decision is based upon the particular facts of the Northwestern case.  

“Specifically, the board stated that its decision would not preclude a petition for recognition by all Division I football players at private colleges,” Drew said, “and that further developments in the structure and function of the Division I program or even Northwestern football alone might be grounds for reconsideration in the future.

Drew has been quoted often in local and national media on sports law issues, including domestic violence cases and Commissioner Roger Goodell’s upholding the four-game suspension of New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady. She teaches courses in professional sports contract negotiation, drug testing in professional sports and professional sports transactions, as well as a survey course on professional and amateur sports law.

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