House Republican Attacks NLRB Over Whether College Athletes Should Unionize

Kline questions labor board’s decision, saying schools are “searching for answers.”

ST. PAUL, MN - SEPTEMBER 04: U.S. Rep. John Kline (R-MN) speaks on day four of the Republican National Convention (RNC) at the Xcel Energy Center on September 4, 2008 in St. Paul, Minnesota. U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) will accept the GOP nomination for U.S. President Thursday night. (Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty Images)
National Journal
Billy House
May 8, 2014, 3:50 p.m.

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.

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