SBJ/June 16-22, 2014/Labor and Agents

Players unions joining the Northwestern fray

The five unions representing the major team sports players in North America will be filing a joint amicus brief with the National Labor Relations Board in support of the Northwestern University football players’ efforts to unionize.

The MLB Players Association, the NFL Players Association, the NHL Players’ Association, the National Basketball Players Association and the MLS Players Union have hired Michael Rubin of San Francisco-based Altshuler Berzon to file the brief, spokesmen from two of the five unions said.

“The MLBPA and other players’ associations will file a joint amicus brief in support of the players,” said Greg Bouris, MLBPA spokesman. Bouris and the other union spokesmen declined further comment on the brief.

The full NLRB agreed in April to hear Northwestern University’s appeal of a decision by the Chicago regional office that the scholarship football players are employees and can unionize. Briefs are due on June 26 and responsive briefs are due on July 10. The Northwestern football players seeking unionization are represented by the College Athletes Players Association.

“My law firm and I are working with the major sports unions to prepare an amicus brief in the Northwestern/CAPA matter before the NLRB,” Rubin said in an email response to questions from SportsBusiness Journal. “At this stage in the briefing process, we’re not prepared to comment publicly on the issues that we might be addressing.”

Rubin was a law clerk for the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan. He has argued many appeals and last year argued on behalf of the five players unions in the Hart vs. Electronic Arts right of publicity case in the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, according to his biography.

“This shows that they [the professional players unions] take the unionization of and protection for college players seriously,” said Bill Gould, a Stanford Law School professor and former chairman of the NLRB. He added that it could only be a positive for the college football players who want to unionize.

“On the face of it, they need all the support they can get,” Gould said. “They don’t have a natural constituency, so this is a good development for them. It’s good for the players in the college ranks.”

Northwestern University is likely to have a lot of support in amicus briefs from other universities, as well as business interests, in its appeal of the Chicago board’s decision, Gould said.

The NCAA has hired national law firm Littler Mendelson to file an amicus brief in the case, NCAA general counsel Scott Bearby told SportsBusiness Journal in May.

It is not clear whether the NLRB will hear oral arguments, but Gould said a decision is expected sometime this fall.

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