As Appeal Looms, Lawmakers and Professional Sports Leagues Weigh in on Collegiate Unionization
Student athletes get a ruling in their favor.
On March 26, 2014, the regional director of the Chicago chapter of the National Labor Relations Board, Peter Sung Ohr, ruled that scholarship football players at Northwestern University were employees, and therefore had the right to unionize. Citing the long hours spent practicing, the non-educational nature of football related activities, and labeling the scholarships received by students as “compensation”, Ohr’s decision has the ability to be the first step in a complete overhaul of the collegiate sport landscape. On Thursday, July 3rd, parties on both sides of the argument submitted briefs to the NLRB in an effort to coerce the five-person panel into deciding in their favor. Northwestern and congressional republicans voiced their concerns, while the College Athletes Players Association and all 5 major US sports leagues (MLB, NHL, NFL, NBA, and MLS) submitted their argument for upholding the ruling. With many experts feeling that the decision will be upheld, the question becomes not whether change will occur, but just how far it will go and the effects, both positive and negative, it will have on the collegiate athletics landscape.
Inconsistent unionization has the ability to divide.
Although this particular decision has an extremely limited scope, the possible ramifications, if the NLRB national headquarters in Washington, D.C. upholds it, could be staggering. The March judgment states that specifically, only scholarship students at private universities are eligible for unionization, making no mention of public universities or the rest of the collegiate landscape, which could cause for vast inconsistencies in application. Labor and employment laws are legislated within the states individually, and therefore, depending on a particular jurisdiction’s laws and political trends, unionization could be anywhere from a difficult struggle, to a forgone conclusion. Florida, as an example, has extremely low private unionization rates, and relatively high public unionization rates, 3.1% and 27.8% respectively. That fact combined with the unbelievable amount of revenue collegiate football brings in to the major state universities, $74 million dollar average from 2010-2012, makes the probability of unionization of Florida public university athletes extremely high.
If that domino falls in Florida, states like Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas, would need to follow suit in order to compete. Students would then be far less inclined to attend schools without the protections that unionization would provide, forcing many students to compete over the limited number of protected spots across the nation. You could then see a methodic overhaul of the entire collegiate landscape due, primarily, to the financial ability of some schools to pay their players without consequence, and the need for other institutions to make sacrifices in order to measure up. As certain schools inevitably begin to pull away, they will bring with them the championships and the public eye that comes with having many star athletes in one place. Less fortunate universities will be forced to cut certain programs just to be able to tread water, so to speak, within this new model.
For female athletes, the potential for equality or elimination.
Optimists believe that this decision could finally create the equality that has been sought for so long by female student athletes. The combination of Title IX and a new ability to receive such benefits as health insurance and collective bargaining rights could put both male and female athletes on the same level and compel, or even force, athletic programs to compensate both sexes the same way. While this would be a victory for gender equality in sports, it also has the potential to force schools with lower budgets to eliminate many athletic programs in order to retain the most lucrative. While some would argue a balanced spending cut is better than an unbalanced one, it begs the question of whether protecting the athletes who bring in more money should come at the price of completely eliminating certain events from NCAA competition.
While there seems to be no disagreement that the current NCAA model needs to be revamped, the “How?” of it all is where the question lies. If the NLRB decides to uphold Mr. Ohr’s decision, then some sort of guidelines or implementation schedule needs to accompany it. Without the necessary foresight, the unionization of student athletes has the potential to cause irrevocable damage to amateur sports in the United States. It would be terrible to lose so many programs across the nation just so that the few can get as much payment and protection as they feel is deserved.
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