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.”
Bradford L. Livingston, an attorney specializing in labor law, cautioned that granting student-athletes unionization rights could lead to further bargaining powers, including the ability to negotiate over academic standards and graduation requirements.
Former NFL player Patrick Eilers said he favors CAPA’s goals of mandated four-year scholarships, health and insurance benefits, and stipends.
But player unionization “will make the system more of a business than it already is,” he said. “We need to gravitate collegiate athletics toward the student model, not the other way around.”
Eilers, who was a member of the 1988 Notre Dame national championship team, raised concerns about the “unintended consequences of being deemed an ‘employee’ and what unionization could bring to college athletics.”
“I was a student-athlete at Notre Dame. Period. I was not an employee of the university, nor did I want to be one,” Eilers said. “Conversely, I played six years of professional football.…I was an employee and I wanted to be one.”
Andy Schwarz, a sports economist, said the biggest threat to college sports comes from the “price-fixing cartel called the NCAA” that has allowed all Division I schools to stifle healthy economic competition through collusion to impose limits on all forms of athlete compensation.
Student-athletes have a choice on where they go to school, the sports economist said, but they do not have a choice about the “full package” they receive.
Schwarz refuted the claim that providing compensation to college athletes is not possible because many athletic departments lose money.
“The idea that this is a money-losing industry is incredible. If you look at a money-losing industry, you wouldn’t see rising employee pay, you wouldn’t see firms flocking to join the industry,” he said. “The money is in the system, it’s just that it’s being denied to the primary generators.”
He said that money that would go to college athletes is instead funneled to “elaborate recruiting palaces” and coaches, who can make as much as $7 million a year.
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the panel’s top Democrat, said during the last four decades the NCAA has “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.”
“They have created nothing less than a big business sports empire,” he said. “In the end, this is a classic labor dispute. The NCAA empire is holding all the cards, making all the rules, and capturing all the profits.”
Before the hearing, Huma told the Associated Press that he is concerned about Congress creating laws that might set up roadblocks for college athlete unionization.
“CAPA is concerned that this hearing has been called in an attempt to legitimize the NCAA’s illegitimate effort to eliminate college athletes’ rights,” Huma said.