The National Labor Relations Board will decide on a case involving the unionization of college athletes that could send shock waves through the present collegiate athletic scene.
In early 2014, the College Players Association attempted to organize athletes at Northwestern to collectively bargain for expanded medical care, increased scholarships and benefits. The players voted, but the NLRB refused to have them counted until it ruled on the case. Local NLRB administrator, Peter Orr, ruled that the players were employees and could vote on unionization. If the Board upholds his ruling it could change the basic nature of college sports.
The NLRB only has jurisdiction over private universities. Public schools are governed by state regulatory agencies. Schools like Notre Dame, USC and Stanford are private. Certain states, primarily in the South, forbid collective bargaining with state employees. The NLRB has to decide whether the athletes are "students" or "employees."
The athletes argue that in sports like football, they may spend 60 hours a week performing athletic duties in training camp, and 50 hours a week during the regular season. They also have mandatory off-season training programs. They argue that athletes are forced to sign contracts with a university which give up rights that non-athletes retain. The athletes maintain that they generate millions in television revenue, gate receipts and memorabilia for universities, unlike regular students.
If they are allowed to unionize, every aspect of their relationship with schools will be up for negotiation. If bargaining were to break down there could be strikes.
University administrators and athletic departments are adamant in their view that the athletes are primarily students. They argue that these athletes currently get benefits like tuition, housing and food which are of great value.
The NCAA recently granted 65 schools in five "power conferences" the ability to increase benefits. Certain athletic programs are offering athletes as much as $5,000 in "attendance clauses" and greatly increased food allowances. These administrators argue that chaos would erupt in collective bargaining. They believe that this ruling would extend NLRB jurisdiction into areas it was never intended to be involved in.
Many athletes, especially those from families who struggle economically, argue that they are kept at a lifestyle below their non-athletic peers. They are not allowed to work during the school year to supplement their income. They struggle to maintain their studies with an enormous load of athletic time demands. More affluent students are given allowances by their parents. Many athletes have no interest in education. They are forced to attend college because the pro leagues won't allow them to enter the pros straight from high school.
The NLRB is composed of three Democrats, who normally favor extension of union rights and three Republicans, who normally want to restrict the ability to unionize. I have doubts about the ability of student-athletes to form bargaining units and effectively find consensus in a strike, but admire the determination of the Northwestern athletes. The coming decision may be the first crack in the control that schools have over their athletes and change the way student-athletes are treated.
-- Leigh Steinberg has represented many of the most successful athletes and coaches in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing and golf, including the first overall pick in the NFL draft an unprecedented eight times, among more than 60 first-round selections. His clients have included Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon, and he served as the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire." Follow him on Twitter @leighsteinberg.