Northwestern players voted on union, so what happens now?

Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter has led the charge for players' right to unionize. 

Bruce Thorson/Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

On Friday morning in Evanston, Ill., Northwestern football players filed into McGaw Hall on campus to vote on whether to form college sports’ first union.

The voting was monitored by National Labor Relations Board officials, although it’s unclear how many of the 76 scholarship players actually participated in the vote.

So how did the voting go?

That’s unknown and cuts to the center of Friday’s most relevant post-vote question: What happens now?

To start, we won’t know the results of Friday’s vote for some time, as the ballots will be impounded until the NLRB hears Northwestern University’s appeal of a ruling that defined scholarship football players at the school as employees according to Section 2(3) of the National Labor Relations Act.

“Right now, this sets a very clear precedent,” Ramogi Huma, president of the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), told after the March 26 decision by Peter Ohr, a regional director of the NLRB. “It wasn’t even close – we won on every point.”


It is unclear when the school’s appeal will be heard.

“We have not established a timetable for that,” NLRB spokesman Gregory King said.

Here’s what we do know as of now: The NLRB can deny the university’s appeal, at which point the players’ votes would be tallied, or it could rule in favor of the appeal and overturn Ohr’s ruling that players are employees (and then CAPA could file a suit in federal court seeking to overturn that decision).

If the votes are tallied and the players voted in favor of forming a union, then the next decision to make as a union would be whether to exercise their right to demand bargaining and therefore begin negotiations for benefits such as improved medical coverage, sponsorship money and other perks.

Northwestern would almost certainly refuse the union’s request to bargain, sending the legal battle to the U.S. Courts of Appeal, where it could then take up to a year and a half to resolve.

If the players voted against forming a union, then this process comes to an end at Northwestern unless CAPA initiates an appeal.

This is why we’re a long ways off from any tangible effects stemming from Friday’s vote truly changing the athlete-university dynamic in college sports.

One other thing to keep in mind: Even if Northwestern players vote no on a union and this process ends at their school, another private university could pick up the fight to unionize and be covered by the NLRB’s jurisdiction. Public schools, however, could not, as they are subject to state law.