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Kline on college sports: unions not the answer

WASHINGTON — Kline is holding a hearing Thursday about potential consequences of a regional NLRB decision allowing Northwestern University athletes to unionize.

Northwestern University football players (L-R) Traveon Henry, Deonte Gibson, Dwight White and Marcus McShepard prior to the athletes' vote on unionization in April. The results of the vote are impounded pending a ruling from the NLRB.
REUTERS/Jim Young

WASHINGTON — College administrators and legal experts convene on Capitol Hill Thursday to warn Rep. John Kline and his Education and the Workforce committee against the ill effects of unionized college athletes — a view already shared by Kline and other Republicans.

When a National Labor Relations Board regional director ruled in March that Northwestern University football players could collectively bargain, Kline said it was a decision that “threatens to fundamentally alter college sports,” and promised his committee, focused on education and labor issues, would take a look at the ruling. 

In the meantime, Northwestern appealed the ruling to the full NLRB, and the players’ unionization ballots have been impounded until the board reaches a decision.

Kline said Wednesday he has a series of concerns about the potential impact of the decision: what if only some schools are allowed to unionize? (The NLRB only covers private entities, so it has no jurisdiction over public schools like the University of Minnesota.) What if unionized players try to dictate how many games they intend to play, contrary to what’s on the schedule? How would walk-on players be treated differently than athletes with scholarships? What if there’s a strike?

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“This is such a radical departure from long-standing labor policy that I was concerned it would have ramifications that are far-reaching,” Kline said.

The NLRB’s March ruling reinforced the traditional Republican-Democrat split on labor issues. Democrats said the ruling was a good step toward treating student-athletes as university employees, responsible for millions of dollars of revenue for their schools and worthy of collective bargaining.

Republicans warned the ruling would upset the traditional structure of college athletics, where players’ scholarships, and the college education that comes with it, are considered compensation for their role on the field.

Ken Starr, others to testify

Republicans control the U.S. House, so most of the conclusions reached at Thursday’s hearing (titled, “Big Labor on College Campuses: Examining the Consequences of Unionizing Student Athletes”) are likely to reinforce with their point of view.

Witnesses include college administrators from two private schools (Baylor University President Ken Starr and the athletics director at Stanford, Bernard Muir) and lawyers who have argued for and against college athletics unions.

“These are basic questions that we can ask, and I think that the witnesses that we’ve got are a pretty good group,” Kline said.

But Minnesota sports and labor law experts who agree with the NLRB’s Northwestern ruling said they’re not expecting any new, blockbuster opinions at the hearing.

“Any hearing that starts with ‘Big Labor,’ you know what direction that’s going to go,” University of Minnesota labor policy professor John Budd said. “Just like any hearing that starts with ‘Fat Cat CEOs.’ ”

Unionization ‘beside the point’

Minneapolis attorney Steven Silton said lawmakers would be better served if they heard from NCAA officials who have a financial stake in preserving the status quo, and who could mitigate the need for collective bargaining if they worked with students to provide the services a union might demand (Northwestern’s players, for example, aren’t looking to be paid right now, but they want more medical coverage for injuries and the ability to secure their own scholarships).

“If [NCAA president] Mark Emmert is brought in front of Congress, just to testify, that in and of itself would probably do enough to push the needle toward something,” Silton said. “Bringing in people to talk philosophically about whether or not unions are the answer to the problem is really beside the point. These kids are having their talents exploited for profit.”

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Budd agreed, saying the issue isn’t necessarily whether students should be allowed to unionize, but whether their schools fairly compensate and provide for them.

To that end, Kline said he hasn’t landed on what the right approach should be — just that collective bargaining isn’t it.

“I think it’s clear that the colleges and universities and the NCAA have a responsibility to provide for their students,” he said. “But I don’t think unionization and the confusion that may come because of that, I don’t think that’s the right answer.”

Congress can — but probably won’t — do something

If Congress really wanted to, there are a couple things it could do to influence a labor spat within college athletics.

Lawmakers could amend the National Labor Relations Act to explicitly include or exclude college athletes from collective bargaining eligibility. But since its enactment in the 1940s, Congress has rarely touched the law, Budd said, most recently expanding it to cover non-profit hospital employees in the 1970s. And with divided government in Washington, it’s certainly not happening this year.

House Republicans have clashed with the NLRB more recently. In 2011, the House passed two bills meant to overturn NLRB rulings, one looking to block airline manufacturer Boeing from moving jobs from Washington to South Carolina, a right-to-work state, and another to speed up the timeline for union elections. The Senate, controlled by Democrats, never touched them. Kline’s Education and Workforce Committee approved a new version of the latter bill last month.

“We have really tried to rein in what we think are extreme over-reaches of the National Labor Relations Board,” he said.

Kline said he hasn’t found a legislative approach to college sports unionization yet. But Budd said he doubts lawmakers will nudge their way further into this fight, at least for now.

“One would think that the political calculus would be: Is this the issue we want to prioritize?” he said. “With everything else that’s going, I don’t think that would a very effective re-election strategy.”

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