• September 1, 2014

Battle Over College-Athlete Labor Unions Flares Up at House Hearing

Lawmakers aired starkly contrasting views about what collective bargaining for college athletes would mean at a Congressional hearing on Thursday called in response to Northwestern University football players’ bid to unionize.

A National Labor Relations Board regional director ruled in March that the players are employees under the control of the university, based in part on the strict sports schedule they must keep, and therefore are eligible to form a union. Northwestern has argued that the regional director ignored key facts and has appealed the ruling to the full NLRB. Meanwhile, the results of the players’ union vote, taken on April 25, have been impounded pending the full board’s review.

Among many concerns raised at Thursday’s hearing were that students who unionized could have to pay taxes on wages, colleges could face major financial burdens, and other colleges in an athletic conference could be harmed if one team’s players went on strike.

Rep. John P. Kline Jr., a Minnesota Republican and chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said the conditions faced by athletes should be dealt with "in a way that protects the athletic and academic integrity of higher education."

"The recent NLRB decision," he said in prepared remarks, "takes a fundamentally different approach that could make it harder for some students to access a quality education."

But some lawmakers voiced support for the union-organizing effort. Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat, said that colleges and universities in recent decades, with help from the National Collegiate Athletic Association, had cashed in on their best football and basketball players while treating them poorly, and had created "a big-business sports empire."

"In the end, this is a classic labor dispute," Representative Miller said. "By banding together and bargaining, these athletes can win the kinds of things union workers have demanded and won across the country."

Greater Scrutiny

The hearing, titled "Big Labor on College Campuses: Examining the Consequences of Unionizing Student Athletes," was held as lawmakers are paying more attention to how colleges treat their athletes. Advocates for the players in recent months have met with lobbyists and lawmakers, and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation is set to hold a hearing next week to examine the welfare of college athletes.

For its part, the NCAA has stepped up efforts to help athletes. Last month its Division I Board of Directors approved a measure allowing colleges to provide more meals for players. The board also endorsed changes in the Division I governance structure that are expected to provide wealthy colleges with more autonomy, setting the stage for big-time athletics programs to increase the value of scholarships and to provide new health and welfare benefits.

Opponents of unionization at Thursday’s hearing and earlier this week argued that the NLRB should not be driving major changes in college athletics.

"The real question with respect to the NLRB," said Baylor University’s president, Ken Starr, who spoke at the hearing, "is are we going to in fact use the National Labor Relations Act as a tool for negotiating improvements? And it seems to me exactly the wrong way to go."

The day before, Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, wrote in a letter to Representative Kline that the NLRB is "not in a position to consider all of the collateral consequences" of a decision that some athletes should be treated as employees.

"If the federal government is to change the legal status of student-athletes," said Ms. Broad in the letter, "that judgment should be deliberated by the Congress, not announced by the NLRB."

William B. Gould IV, who was chairman of the NLRB during the Clinton administration, said in an interview that Ms. Broad’s letter was "disgraceful" because it aimed to politicize the process and marginalize a body—the NLRB—that is doing exactly what it was created by Congress to do.

"If Congress wants to change the law, that is always their prerogative," Mr. Gould said. "But each decision that the board makes is not subject to a special referendum in front of Congress or anybody else."

Opponents of athletes’ right to unionize are "trying to snuff out both the rule of law and the spread of collective bargaining," Mr. Gould said. "What’s being asked for here is a special sanctuary where they are above the law."

Brad Wolverton contributed to this article.

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