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Stanford Cautions Employees on Player-Union Talk

Following the ruling last week that football players at Northwestern University could organize, I called a handful of private colleges to see how they were dealing with the prospect of a broader union movement.

Some athletic directors did not appear concerned, saying they were more worried about other legal challenges facing the NCAA. Others were tight-lipped. One athletic director said that he was happy to talk but that he wasn’t interested in being quoted by name or as an anonymous source.

Stanford University sent a memorandum to its coaches and various staff members, asking them to use care in discussing union-related matters and to avoid making any public comments on the National Labor Relations Board ruling, including in social media.

“If you have been following the NLRB testimony you know that every seemingly innocent comment by university representatives takes on heightened importance in that environment, and is dissected and scrutinized,” said the note, which directed employees to send all media inquiries to Kurt Svoboda, a university spokesman.

In the memo, Stanford provided various suggestions to help its staff “avoid liability.” Here’s what it said:

“To avoid liability you must not:

  • Threaten actions against student-athletes if they join or vote for a union (e.g., threaten loss of playing time, being cut from team, loss of scholarship, extra conditioning, etc.).

  • Retaliate against student-athletes for actually supporting a union.

  • Promise benefits to student-athletes to discourage union support.

  • Monitor athlete’s union student-activities.

  • Question student-athletes about their union sympathies or activities.

  • State that Stanford will not deal with a union.”

It could take years to resolve the unionization effort at Northwestern, as the university plans to appeal the ruling. But judging from the early reaction at a few other private colleges, they are treading carefully on the issue, which could one day affect them, too.

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