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House Committee Looks at College Athletes and Unionization

May 09, 2014

hearing room


​In the wake of the recent decision by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to classify Northwestern University (IL) football players as employees, the House Education and the Workforce Committee held a hearing yesterday to discuss college athletes and unionization.

Many of the witnesses and committee members on both sides of the aisle acknowledged the well-known ongoing issues in college sports, including student health and safety, scholarship guarantees for injured athletes, fairness in transfer policies and graduation rates. There was also widespread support for not using the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to address these concerns, although as Inside Higher Ed noted, the issue of unionization in general is starting to break down along party lines.

Ken Starr, president and chancellor of Baylor University (TX), was among those who discussed the unintended consequences of doing so, suggesting that while the NLRB decision would only apply to private institutions, it is bound to impact all Division I athletic programs in some way. Thus, if student-athletes are allowed to unionize at Northwestern, it will fundamentally change intercollegiate athletics throughout the country in all sectors.

In a letter to Committee Chair John Kline (R-MN) sent in advance of the hearing, ACE President Molly Corbett Broad outlined the Council’s stance on the issue. She noted that “the NLRA presupposes management at loggerheads with labor, with competing economic interests best resolved by collective bargaining. The NLRA focuses on the economic interests of management and labor. The NLRB is not in a position to consider all of the collateral consequences of a decision that student-athletes receiving athletic scholarships should be treated as employees.”

“If the federal government is to change the legal status of student-athletes,” she concluded, “that judgment should be deliberated by the Congress, ‎not announced by the NLRB.”

Broad also noted that to adopt the proposition that students who receive athletic scholarships are employees “would disserve the students’ education and impede institutions’ ability to perform their essential missions.” Kline addressed this notion in his remarks, saying the conditions faced by athletes should be dealt with "in a way that protects the athletic and academic integrity of higher education."

Rep. Tim Bishop (D-NY) suggested that the union movement began at Northwestern because student athletes did not feel they had a voice, and that higher education should use the NLRB decision as a catalyst for change. Bernard Muir, director of athletics at Stanford University (CA), testified about the changes Stanford has implemented in recent years, including protecting scholarships for injured student-athletes.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee will take up the issue in a hearing May 14.

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