In another step toward redefining the amateur status of college athletes, Northwestern has agreed to drop social media restrictions placed on football players after a complaint about the team handbook was filed with the National Labor Relations Board.
ESPN first reported Tuesday the complaint was withdrawn in September after Northwestern agreed to modify its rules. The NLRB's advisory memo states the scholarship football players are assumed to be "statutory employees" and that certain team rules were unlawful. That could affect players at the other 16 private schools that compete in FBS.
A group of former Northwestern players, led by an advocacy group for college athletes, failed last year in its attempt to gain the right to unionize the team from the NLRB, although the door was left open for other changes when the board said the players should be treated as employees. The board has no jurisdiction over public institutions, which include the vast majority of colleges and universities in Division I.
A complaint to the NLRB from a California lawyer with no connection to Northwestern was filed in August 2015, challenging the team's rules prohibiting activities such as speaking to the media without athletic department permission and posting information on Twitter and other social media without limits or monitoring by coaches. The school also agreed to change its grievance policy, which said players must go to the university, conference or NCAA with complaints.
The school does not have similar policies for the rest of the student body.
"Northwestern considers its students who participate in NCAA Division I sports, including those who receive athletic scholarships, to be students, first and foremost," Northwestern Vice President for University Relations Al Cubbage said in a statement.
"As noted in the NLRB General Counsel's Advice Memorandum dated September 22, 2016, although Northwestern disputes the General Counsel's assumption that Northwestern's scholarship football players are employees, the rules of the former Football Handbook that were the subject of this charge have been modified."
Robert Boland, an antitrust attorney, said the initial 2014 ruling by an NLRB regional administrator in Chicago that scholarship players at private colleges and universities are employees creates opportunities to push for more benefits and rights for student-athletes — possibly even payments.
"With this one body they are employees statutorily," said Boland, who is director of the masters of sports administration program at Ohio University. "You could conceivably widen the niche and say if they are employees they would have the right to have contracts. They would have the right to have certain things that we can guarantee under the labor law for employees."
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court said it would not hear the NCAA's appeal of an antitrust ruling against it in the so-called O'Bannon case. The lower courts ruled that NCAA rules violated antitrust laws, but also shot down a plan to pay college athletes for the use of their names, images and likenesses.
The ruling left the NCAA open to further legal challenges and several are working their way through the courts.
Boland said because the NLRB's decision affects only private schools its influence in the larger debate over how college athletes should be compensated is limited.
"It is nothing more than a piece to a large puzzle about the redefinition of the model of college athletics moving from some version of amateurism to some version of greater athlete autonomy and it doesn't say anything about money it just says more autonomy," Boland said.
This story has been corrected to show the NLRB did not make a ruling on the complaint but rather sent an advisory memo and the case was withdrawn after Northwestern agreed to modify its rules. Also, the case does not directly affect the other private schools in FBS but could.