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The Politics of Player Unions

May 9, 2014

WASHINGTON -- As the National Labor Relations Board weighs a key decision on whether some college athletes may unionize, advocates on both sides of the issue are taking their cause to the halls of Congress.

The American Council on Education this week said that Congress, not an administrative agency, ought to make any changes to the labor status of college athletes. And the College Athletes Players Association has hired its own lobbyists and made the rounds on Capitol Hill to press its side of the case.

Perhaps predictably, though, as Congress turns its attention to the issue, the debate over college athletes' unionization is unfolding along party lines.

Representative John Kline, the Republican who chairs the House education committee, on Thursday assembled a panel of witnesses to discuss the detrimental effects that would flow from allowing college athletes to unionize.

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, are planning their own hearing next week aimed at exploring whether “the commercial operation of college athletics is unfairly exploiting the talents and services of college athletes.”

The partisan divide on the issue was clear during Thursday’s hearing, in which lawmakers heard from witnesses about a range of problems that would result from unionization.

Kenneth Starr, president of Baylor University, and Bernard Muir, Stanford University’s athletics director, laid out a number of “unintended consequences” they said would follow.

Muir said that Stanford “might opt not to compete at the level we are competing in” if its athletes were allowed to unionize.

Starr said that negotiating improvements for athletes would create an unequal system in which the university would have to treat some of its athletes differently depending on whether they qualified to be part of the union. He said that it would also undermine the supportive relationship that the university’s coaches and faculty have with the players because it would require the university to discuss issues with union representatives, not necessarily the players themselves.  

Republicans on the panel were critical of the decision by the regional director of the NLRB and said that whatever problems exist in college athletics, they should not be addressed through unionization.

Kline said that allowing colleges athletes to unionize would set a “dangerous precedent for colleges and universities nationwide.”

He said in an interview that he would “probably” introduce legislation to block a union if he thought he could get it through the Senate and President Obama would sign it.

“But we’re not ready for that right now,” Kline said, noting that the full National Labor Relations Board has not yet weighed in on the issue. “We’ve got some more discussion to do, and we’ll see where this goes.”

He said that while there was agreement on both sides of the aisle that there are problems in college athletics, he said that the National Labor Relations Act was the wrong tool to bring about changes.

Democrats were more sympathetic to the Northwestern players’ bid to organize. They criticized the slow progress that colleges, leagues and the NCAA have made on improving conditions for their athletes.

Representative Tim Bishop of New York, a former college administrator, said he viewed the Northwestern football player’s effort to unionize as “a cry for help.”

Representative Marcia Fudge of Ohio said that “but for the courageous actions of these young men, we wouldn’t be talking about it today.”

The top Democrat on the committee, Representative George Miller of California, sharply criticized colleges and universities and the NCAA, which he said had “perfected the art of monetizing the athletic play of their best football and basketball players and teams while steadily encroaching on the players’ academic opportunities.”

He said the debate over unionization for college athletes was “a classic labor dispute,” in which the “NCAA empire is holding all the cards, making all the rules, and capturing all the profits.”

Miller said that the current issues with college athletics mirrored the slow progress of improvement for the working conditions of professional sports players, namely on the issue of concussions. Reforms in the professional arena came about only after players were able, through their union, to press the league to do more, he said.

The Senate hearing is scheduled for next Wednesday.  

 

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