The top House Republican on labor issues says Northwestern University's football team would set a “dangerous precedent” by organizing the first union for students athletes.
“Would a union negotiate over the number and length of practices?” House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) said Thursday during a hearing. “Perhaps the union would seek to bargain over the number of games. If management and the union are at an impasse, would players go on strike? Would student athletes on strike attend class and have access to financial aid?”
Kline scrutinized a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board that paved the way for Northwestern's football team to unionize.
In March, NLRB regional director Peter Sung Ohr decided that the university's football players should be considered employees, because of the long hours they spend practicing and playing, which would give them the right to organize a union.
But Kline argued the players should be considered students first, athletes second.
“For some, competing at the collegiate level is a step toward a career in professional sports,” Kline said. “For others – in fact, for most student athletes – playing a college sport is a ticket to an education they simply couldn't access without an athletic scholarship.”
Democrats, by and large, support the NLRB's ruling allowing the Northwestern football players to unionize. Rep. George Miller (Calif.), the committee's ranking Democrat, said student athletes make millions for schools and it would be naive not to also recognize them as employees.
“The nostalgic days where student-athletes really were 'students' first – and where college sports were just about learning team work, self-discipline, and sportsmanship while getting some exercise and friendly competition – are pretty much over for high-level athletic programs,” Miller said at the hearing.
The Northwestern football players say they are not looking to bargain for salaries, but they would like more protections.
“They want to know what happens to them if they suffer a catastrophic injury on the field that leaves them with a lifetime disability,” Miller said. “Will they lose their scholarship – and with it their chance for an education and a career? How much of their health care will they and their families need to pay for out of pocket?”
Kline agreed that college athletes deserve scholarship protections and health insurance in the event of an injury, but said that forming a union is not the right way to go about it.
“Their dreams can be turned upside down by a sports-related injury,” Kline said. “When that happens, institutions must step up and provide the health care and academic support the student needs. Most institutions are doing just that and standing by their athletes for the long-haul, but some are not.”
“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,” he added.
Northwestern voted to unionize on April 25, but the results have been impounded until the NLRB board completes a review of the regional director's ruling. Kline said he expects the NLRB to uphold the decision.