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August 17, 2015

Kain Colter, left, the leader of the Northeastern football players’ union movement, met with Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL).

The National Labor Relations Board has punted its much-anticipated decision on whether Northwestern football players may form a union. On Monday the Board effectively dismissed a prior regional ruling, which said scholarship football players at private universities are employees and, therefore, should be allowed to unionize.

In a unanimous decision, the five-member Board voted to deny Northwestern scholarship football players' request to form a union. It didn't say whether college athletes should be considered employees, but it seems the federal government is unlikely to recognize scholarship athletes who vote to form a union.

Higher education leaders say they are pleased with the Board's decision in the Northwestern unionization case, reiterating their belief that collective bargaining is not the appropriate way to address concerns raised by student-athletes.

"We remain confident of the longstanding legal principle that students cannot be classified as employees under federal labor law, whether they are participating in intercollegiate athletics, engaging in the performing arts or pursuing any number of other academic and extracurricular activities," Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, said in a statement.

Senate labor committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said the Board made the "right decision for student athletes," but he also urged the Board to make clear that students are not employees.

"I do not believe that Congress, when it wrote the National Labor Relations Act, intended that students - whether they be athletes or graduate assistants - be considered employees of their university," Alexander said.

For its part, Northwestern says the votes of scholarship football players cast last spring won't be counted.

Jim Phillips, Northwestern's vice president for intercollegiate athletics and recreation, praised the Board's decision and pledged to support student-athletes.

"This outstanding university firmly believes in the paramount importance of the health, safety and well-being of its students and will continue to be a national leader," Phillips said.

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