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By:  Dan Cohen – 3/27/14

Yesterday, the Regional Director of the NLRB in its Chicago Region ruled that college football players at Northwestern University were employees of the University, who could be represented by a Union.   I guess I should consider myself a former employee of Eastern Michigan University, where I played football on scholarship.  OK I’ll say it: This is absolutely crazy!  And, I’m not alone.  91% of people polled by the Today Show believe college athletes are students, not employees.   According to Regional Director Ohr, “players receiving scholarships to perform football-related services for the Employer under a contract for hire in return for compensation are subject to the Employer’s control and are therefore employees.”  I suppose we can say this about all college athletes, not just football players, as well as students who are on academic scholarships.

Of course, this is not the final word as Northwestern intends to appeal the decision to the full NLRB in Washington.  From there, the case can proceed to federal court and perhaps all the way to the Supreme Court.  This decision will have no application to public universities, where most college football programs are found, because the NLRB does not have jurisdiction in the public sector. However, state agencies that regulate such issues for public universities could be influenced by the decision.  Who knows, maybe college athletes will start filing workers compensation claims against their schools when they are injured as well as overtime claims under the FLSA.  I can assure you that during the football season, I spent more than 40 hours a week related to football, particularly when we drove 7 hours each way to Northern Illinois.  Quite frankly given Regional Director Ohr’s opinion that “even the players’ academic lives are controlled [by the University],” a good argument can be made that even non-football related activities would count towards the number of hours “worked” by the scholar athlete.

Behind this effort is the College Athletes Players Association, which referred to the NCAA as “a dictatorship.” The CAPA’s list of demands include: financial coverage for sports-related medical expenses, placing independent concussion experts on the side-lines during games, establishing an educational trust fund to help former players graduate and “due process” before a coach could strip a player of his scholarship for a rules violation. While I whole-heartedly agree that student athletes should not have to rely on their parents’ health care plans, if any, to fund their medical care if injured in the line of duty, the question becomes, who will pay for that?  And, who will ultimately pay to have concussion experts on the sidelines, which is probably another great idea?  Will the vast majority of college students see their tuition go up to subsidize the overwhelming minority of student athletes?  College football and men’s basketball are huge businesses with lucrative television contracts and huge revenues so one might think there is plenty of money to fund these ideas.  However, football and men’s basketball must foot the bill for the rest of the athletic programs, most of which would probably be in the red but for football and basketball.  Nothing against cross-country, but how many of you have ever attended a cross-country meet…and of those how many would pay to do so?

 Establishing trust funds to help players graduate and due process before a coach can strip a student athlete of his scholarship are, in my humble opinion, a bunch of “hogwash.” Maybe the student athletes should stay in school and graduate before they run off to sign multi-million dollar contracts to play in the NFL and NBA.  And, if they do run off to play at the next level, God forbid they set aside a little of their petty cash to put towards their degree when their professional careers are over.  As for due process, let me just say that playing college sports on a full athletic scholarship is an absolute privilege.  The disciplinary rules are pretty straight-forward and pretty easy to follow.  So, we do not need a union to fight to keep student athletes from expulsion.  The rules that apply to the rest of the students should apply equally to the scholar athletes. There is already a perception that they get preferential treatment, and there are more than enough examples of this.

I would prefer to see these issues taken up with the NCAA, which is deserving of some reform, but union representation for student athletes is probably not the answer.  Oh, by the way, where are these college students going to get the money to pay their union dues? I suppose demands will eventually be made to pay student athletes since paying for their education, accommodations and food apparently isn’t enough.  Of course, if the Spartans or Wolverines’ players wish to be represented by a union, they can always exercise their “right to work” rights and simply not pay any union dues.

It’s too bad that Northwestern is the target of unionization.  If an organizing drive were to hit Ohio State, UofM and MSU fans might have a completely different perspective, especially if players adopted the typical “just enough to get by” union mentality.  Of course, I can only imagine what Bo Schembechler would have done if a union business agent brought him a grievance filed by the senior quarterback who was replaced by the superstar freshman quarterback in violation of his “seniority” rights.  And, just imagine paying top dollar to watch the intramural flag football champions who have been suited up as “replacements” for striking college football players.