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College Athletes Won’t Be Allowed to Unionize

Yesterday (August 17), the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), by a unanimous 5-0 vote (three Democrats, two Republicans), threw out a ruling that would have allowed Northwestern University football players to proceed with plans to join (or form) a labor union. Apparently, the NLRB’s chief concern was that allowing these jocks to organize could “throw off the competitive balance in college football.”

While I’ve never been totally convinced college athletes should belong to a labor union (the United Steel Workers had offered, free of charge, to “sponsor” these Northwestern players), I’ve always felt that big-time college athletes should receive a “stipend” in addition to their scholarship. Forcing these players to live on a pittance, in order to maintain their so-called “amateur standing,” is both hypocritical and parsimonious.

What most disturbed me about college athletes going union were the logistics. With so many “right to work” states already in existence (there are 25 of these states, where employees aren’t required to join the union that represents them), and with the Supreme Court poised to rule next year on the landmark “Abood” decision (forcing union-protected employees to cough up their “fair share”), there can only be trouble down the road.

Given today’s hostile labor environment, it’s hard enough maintaining institutional discipline in a traditional union, much less in a bunch of college kids, many of whom, one short year ago, were a bunch of high school kids. While receiving a stipend is eminently fair and reasonable, joining a union is a whole other deal. Whether they know it or not, when you become actual union members, you enter an entirely different world.

Yes, they would now have the right to hammer out wages and benefits via collective bargaining, and yes, they would have access to the grievance procedure, but they would also have to conform to everything that every other union has to conform to. In regard to federal labor law, these college students would be treated no differently than a New Jersey Teamster local.

Accordingly, unless another union (like the Steelworkers) generously agreed to carry them free of charge, these athletes, in order to defray administrative costs, would have to collect dues and initiation fees, hold elections, conduct meetings, and deal with any “renegade” player who loved football, loved being on scholarship, but detested the idea of being forced to join a union. It’s a totally different world.

Also, consider the tactics that could be used by the college administration in a right-to-work, football-loving state like Michigan. If players weren’t required to join the union, would coaches show favoritism to those players not seen as “rabble-rousers”? Also, how would “union equality” be achieved? Does the offensive tackle make the same wage as the quarterback? For that matter, does the back-up QB make the same dough as the starting QB?

And besides having dozens of players—all union members—disrupt the program each year by leaving school (a continuity problem that “real” unions never face), there’s the tricky issue of strikes. Obviously, non-union members won’t join the strike, but how would the union treat “scabs”?

Also, the university has the right to use “replacement” players. Would they also have the right to revoke the players’ scholarships? Who would dare go on strike if it meant losing his scholarship? And if a union can’t strike, it has zero leverage.

Granted, we can be accused of resorting to “alarmism” here, of trying to make this whole thing seem like an end-of-the world scenario, because, in rebuttal, one could argue that these newly-minted union members, neophytes though they are, would simply take on these formidable challenges, one at a time, and deal with them.

But I like to think this NLRB ruling is a blessing in disguise. Putting the fear of God up the skirt of the NCAA establishment by suing for the right to organize might just be the impetus college athletes need to get these sports “mandarins” to agree to stipends, something that is long overdue. Suggesting that a player who receives $50 a week for incidentals is no longer an “amateur” is the height of hypocrisy.

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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