The controversy over whether college athletes should be permitted to unionize is being seized upon by a top House Republican as ammunition to rekindle attacks on the National Labor Relations Board.
Collective bargaining is not the solution for student athletes to get better treatment from their universities and colleges, Rep. John Kline of Minnesota declared Thursday, kicking off a hearing of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce he chairs.
Kline, and several witnesses at the hearing including Baylor University President and Chancellor Ken Starr, posited a number of consequences and financial implications that could result from the unionization of collegiate sports.
Kline also warned in ominous terms that the "Obama NLRB board" is about to "rubber stamp" the landmark ruling in March by one of its regional officials that moves in that direction. That ruling held Northwestern University's scholarship football players are employees of the school and should be able to form the nation's first union for student athletes.
Based on the regional ruling, Northwestern's football players have cast ballots on whether to form a union. But because the university has challenged the ruling, the ballots were impounded and won't be counted until the full board makes a decision.
"In the meantime, schools, athletic organizations, students, and the public are searching for answers to countless questions stemming from this unprecedented ruling," Kline said.
While it remains unclear whether Congress will try to develop barriers to prevent college athletes from unionizing, there are already several bills that seek to improve the treatment of student athletes and provide protections. For instance, one would make four-year scholarships mandatory for athletes participating in injury-prone collision sports. Another would bolster due process in cases of student-athlete misconduct.
And another bill, entitled the Collegiate Student Athlete Protection Act, would require colleges and universities with athletes in high-revenue sports to provide a package of financial-aid benefits, including aid when scholarships are revoked for reasons other than academic failure or misconduct.
Kline acknowledged on Thursday that a student athlete's "dreams can be turned upside down by a sports-related injury." And he said that, "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," he said. "Can the NCAA and institutions do more to protect students? Absolutely. They could start by giving students a greater role in shaping policies that govern college athletics."
A number of Republican members of the panel echoed similar concerns and sentiments throughout the hearing. But Kline also questioned unionization.
"What issues would a union representing college athletes raise at the bargaining table?" Kline said. "Would a union negotiate over the number and length of practices? 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?"
"How would student athletes provide financial support to the union? Would dues be deducted from scholarships before being disbursed to students? Or are students expected to pay out of pocket? We know many student athletes struggle financially. How will they shoulder the cost of joining a union?"
Kline also questioned whether smaller colleges and universities would find the resources to manage labor relations with student athletes.
"Simply put, the regional director's decision will result in uncertainty and instability across the higher-education landscape," Starr said.