Would-Be Athletes' Union Loses a Lobbyist

April 2, 2014

Last fall, Cornerstone Government Affairs registered to represent the National College Players Association in its efforts to lobby Congress on issues such as concussions, antitrust law and the like. But when officials of the association -- fresh off the National Labor Relations Board ruling last week that football players at Northwestern University have the right to bargain collectively -- make the rounds on Capitol Hill today and tomorrow to explain why athletes in big-time college sports should unionize, they will be doing so without Cornerstone in their corner.

The lobbying firm said in a statement Tuesday that it had just ended its pro bono relationship with the NCPA, which represents the Northwestern players and wants college athletes to have many more rights as well as more financial support from their institutions. That's because Cornerstone also represents (as paying clients) several universities that could be directly or indirectly affected if college players win the right to unionize. Among them: Rice University, whose football team -- like Northwestern's -- plays in the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Football Bowl Subdivision and would clearly be affected if the National Labor Relations Board were to uphold backing the players' union bid.

Also on Cornerstone's client list is DePaul University, which does not play big-time football but does play Division I basketball, a sport that would almost certainly be included in any major attempts to unionize college athletes.

The firm also represents public universities such as the University of Minnesota and the University of Northern Colorado. While only private institutions would be directly affected by an eventual NLRB ruling regarding athletes' unions -- collective bargaining at public colleges and universities is governed by state laws -- the sorts of systemic changes that the Northwestern players and the National College Players Association ultimately seek with their litigation and advocacy would affect the Minnesotas and Northern Colorados of the world, too.

"The recent Northwestern union decision would cause a conflict of interest with our current higher education clients," Geoff Gonella, Cornerstone's president, said in an emailed statement. "That is why out of an abundance of caution, we have recently ended our services for the NCPA going forward."

Even without a hired gun in D.C., the newly empowered players' group appears to be having no problem lining up meetings with members of Congress, according to various news accounts. After all, it is aligned with the United Steelworkers of America.

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