George Leef’s latest column for Forbes pours cold water on the concept of unionizing college football players at Northwestern University.
The United Steelworkers union, hoping for a transfusion of dues money, helped the activist players, led by quarterback Kain Colter, push their petition for a union certification election. Conceivably, the union could wind up negotiating on behalf of the Northwestern players with the university over all matters that are subjects of collective bargaining under the law – compensation, hours, benefits, and working conditions.
This is unprecedented. Unions currently represent quite a few workers at universities, including faculty members, but not undergraduates who are on sports teams. Regional director Peter Ohr, who made the ruling, points out that the players receive compensation, even if it’s not taxable cash, in the form of scholarships and training; also, they are required to put in a lot of heavily supervised time relating to the team if they want to continue to play. That is enough, in his view, to bring them under the definition of employees, and therefore eligible to seek union representation under the National Labor Relations Act. (That’s the worst of our lousy labor laws, as I wrote about here.)
Treating college athletes (there is no reason to limit this ruling just to football players) is stretching the law. Even though the players usually devote more time and effort to the team than they do to their academic work – sometimes the ratio approaches infinity given the paltry academic requirements for big-sport athletes – they do not have employment contracts to work as running backs, tackles, linebackers, etc.
They have been admitted as students and can be removed from the team or even flunk out of the school entirely if their academic work is not good enough. In what other job does a worker’s continuance in it depend on a factor that has nothing whatsoever to do with his performance in that job? No steel worker was ever fired because he couldn’t write an acceptable paper on Pride and Prejudice.