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State of the union: NLRB reminds NU football players of their place

When Northwestern’s football players voted to unionize last year, it made national headlines. Imagine: athletes as workers, worthy of protection and financial benefits.

But now that the National Labor Relations Board has decided not to assert its jurisdiction in the players’ request for recognition as a union, it feels like naivety. We really thought a group of college kids could win against monoliths like the Big Ten, the NCAA and now even the NLRB, which is supposed to be in the business of fixing unfair labor practices?

If NU’s players made a lot of noise with their decision to unionize, they sounded like a whisper in a hurricane Monday, when the NLRB announced that it had chosen not to rule on the matter.

The federal labor board said that asserting jurisdiction over one private school’s team “would not promote stability in labor relations” for all schools, most of which are state schools. The NLRB said that it can only look at private-sector work places. How convenient for the NCAA.

The decision was being cast in some circles not as a defeat but as a reversal for the cause of unionization of college athletes. Yet it sure feels like an L for those of us who believe football players are golden geese who deserve compensation. Or, as a clear thinker would call them, “employees.’’

A free four-year education might sound like compensation enough, but when you consider that the University of Michigan’s football program brought in $82 million in revenues in 2014, a scholarship looks like pocket change. The counterargument by universities that football revenues pay for the rest of the sports at their schools probably doesn’t matter much to football players who don’t have money to go on a date or to former football players with post-concussion issues.

College football players have all the skills but no power. Monday’s news reminded them of their place.