Can Student Athletes Get Protections without Unionization?

WASHINGTON – A university president warned a House panel Thursday about the far-reaching consequences in college sports of a decision by a labor board permitting student-athletes to unionize.

The Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled in late March that Northwestern University’s football players qualify as employees of the university and can unionize. The NLRB decision only applies to private schools that are under its jurisdiction in parts of Illinois and Indiana.

House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) said that the NCAA should do more to protect its student-athletes, including solutions to deliver healthcare that an injured player may need.

“No student athlete injured while representing their school on the field should be left behind because of the misplaced priorities of a college or university,” Kline said. “Does that mean that unionizing student-athletes is the answer? Absolutely not.”

The NLRB in Washington, D.C., granted Northwestern’s request for a full-board review of regional director Peter Sung Ohr’s decision. The school says college athletes are not employees and such a change would transform the landscape of college sports in the United States.

Northwestern’s football players are the first in college sports to seek union representation. Behind the effort is the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) – a union backed by Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA linebacker and vocal supporter for players’ rights. The United Steelworkers’ Association is covering the group’s legal expenses.

Kline said he expects the NLRB to rubber-stamp the regional director’s ruling, “setting a dangerous precedent for colleges and universities nationwide.”

He said the decision raises various concerns for college sports, including how the students would provide financial support to the union.

“Would dues be deducted from scholarships before being disbursed to students, or are students expected to pay out of pocket?” Kline said. “We know many student athletes struggle financially. How will they shoulder the cost of joining a union?”

The committee heard testimony from several witnesses, including an economist, a university president, and a former NFL player and student-athlete. No one from Northwestern or from CAPA was on the witness list.

Baylor University President Ken Starr called the NLRB’s decision “misguided” and questioned whether the decision would create a discrepancy between the schools with the ability to unionize and public schools that may not have the ability.

The players cast ballots April 25 on whether to unionize. But the labor agency has sealed the ballot boxes until a decision on the appeal is announced.

Starr, who as an independent prosecutor led a five-year investigation of President Bill Clinton in the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals in the 1990s, said Baylor’s football and men’s basketball programs subsidize the remaining 17 non-revenue generating sports and to allow players to unionize would lead to program cutbacks and higher tuition rates.

Only 23 Division I schools generated a profit from their athletic programs during the last fiscal year, Starr said. Other schools have to rely on contributions from alumni and university supporters and student fees to support their athletic programs.

“It is reasonable to believe that donors’ gifts to collegiate athletics may decline as student-athletes are legally redefined as university ‘employees’ who earn taxable income,” he said. “While student fees have generally been readily accepted by the student body, this funding source could well become a source of division if students perceive they are paying to provide athletes with enhanced employment-based benefits not available to the general student body.”