Last month, a regional National Labor Relations Board ruled that football players at Northwestern University have the right to unionize. This set up a huge potential national battle: Because if players can unionize, players can demand to be paid.
But the case has a lot of different factors and outcomes on the table. Here's everything you could possibly need to know about the case and what's probably going to happen.
1. Are college athletes going to get paid?
Not sure yet.
2. But the Northwestern case has to do with whether college athletes get paid, right?
Sort of. Last month a regional version of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which handles union regulations for private businesses, ruled football players at Northwestern University qualify as employees and can join a union, if they wanted to.
3. What does that have to do with getting paid?
If college athletes can join a union, then they could collectively bargain with universities and demand wages, thus potentially getting paid. As of now, they say they don't want wages, but once they unionize, the players would have the right to ask for them.
But just because they have the right to ask doesn't mean they necessarily would. And just because they ask for wages doesn't mean they'd necessarily get them.
4. So the football players at Northwestern are in a union now?
Not yet, and it might not happen at all. On Friday, the team will vote on whether they want to unionize. If they vote yes, they'd be joining the College Athletes Players Association, which is headed up in part by former Northwestern QB Kain Colter. The United Steelworkers is backing that union along with the National College Players Association.
But we probably won't know whether the Northwestern players vote to join the union for at least a couple months. After the regional NLRB board ruled the players could unionize, the university appealed the decision to the national NLRB — and the results of the union election will be sealed if the national board takes up the case. So we probably won't know what the Northwestern players decide for a while.
5. Is the national NLRB board going to take up the case?
Almost definitely. The question of whether college athletes at private universities can join unions and collectively bargain has major consequences for the NCAA and for the way those universities conduct business.
6. What would they be ruling on?
The national NLRB would rule on whether college athletes at private universities have the right to unionize.
7. What about athletes at, like, Kentucky or Ohio State?
This doesn't extend to them. Athletes at public schools have to examine each individual state's labor laws to figure out how to proceed, a process the United Steelworkers is already getting into.
8. What happens if the national NLRB doesn’t take the case?
If the national NLRB doesn't take up the case, it would effectively mean the national board supports the lower, regional board's ruling. Or, it would mean the Northwestern football players would be able to unionize. How that would affect other private universities around the country, or even other teams at the school, remains unclear.
9. So if the national NLRB doesn’t take up the case, and the players vote to unionize, they’re in the union?
But the catch here is Northwestern can, and likely will, still refuse to bargain with them. The players (the union) would then say the school is not bargaining in good faith and now the case would go to court. From there, the case could take years to resolve and could possibly go as high as the Supreme Court.
10. Is that all?
11. OK, let’s say all this stuff happens: The national NLRB takes up the case, rules in favor of the union, and the players vote to join the union. What happens then?
This is the situation the union is hoping for — but it would still likely lead to a lengthy court battle.
It'll probably take several months for the NLRB to reach a decision, which means the ballots from the election would remain sealed until the decision is announced. But if the NLRB rules in favor of the union, and the players join, the players would want to start bargaining with the school. And then, again, the case likely goes court.
12. Last one: What happens if the national NLRB takes up the case, but rules against the union?
This is one of the trickier legal cases because the union has a much narrower window to appeal for judicial review in this case, according to Gerald Berendt, a professor at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago.
Any ballots that were cast would likely remain sealed, since the players can't actually vote for a union they weren't allowed to form in the first place. The ballots likely wouldn't be destroyed, though, because the union would still have a little-used legal tactic to try to overturn the NLRB. The union could claim the NLRB went beyond the scope of its powers by denying the union their rights and appeal that way. It's a rarely used tactic, Berendt said, and it's unclear how successful it would be.
13. Jeez, this can get complicated.
Yeah, there's a lot going on behind the scenes with this. But lots of lawyers are pretty excited about it!
14. So this is going to court?
15. And we won’t even know if the Northwestern players actually want to join a union for a months?
16. And we won’t know the final answers on this stuff for a long time?
17. But, after the vote, decision, and a likely long, long court battle, it’s possible that athletes at private schools could join unions and then demand wages from the schools they play for?
Yes, that could happen.
But basically, it's important to remember these are hypotheticals and nobody knows for sure how this will turn out.
Jacob Fischler is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, D.C.
Contact Jacob Fischler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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