After a regional chapter of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that athletes at Northwestern University were employees under federal law and could thus vote to form a union, Republican state lawmakers in Ohio are moving to bar athletes at state colleges from having the same right.
The NLRB decision applies only to private universities like Northwestern because the National Labor Relations Act only covers private employers. Athletes at state universities are subject to state labor laws — and so Republicans, led by state Rep. Ron Amstutz, added language to a budget bill Monday to prevent athletes at Ohio’s state colleges and universities from having the right to form a union, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported.
The amendment to a larger budget resolution “specifies that students attending state universities are not public employees based upon participating in athletics for the state university,” according to the added language (via CNN’s Sara Ganim):
Ohio lawmakers slipped this into a budget bill. A proposal to ban student athletes from unionizing. pic.twitter.com/P7TAWt6kdM
— Sara Ganim (@sganim) April 8, 2014
The language is almost certainly meaningless. Athletes could still petition the state labor board for the right to unionize — the legislative language, one lawyer told the Enquirer, is merely the legislature “voicing its opinion on the matter.”
Ohio wasn’t the only place where Republicans became angry at the idea of unionized college athletes. Immediately after the decision, former U.S. Rep. Allen West (R) blasted it on Facebook, saying that “liberal progressive socialists have struck at my favorite sport: college football.” And U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), one of the Senate’s leading opponents of organized labor, asked everyone to imagine the horror of “a university’s basketball players striking before a Sweet Sixteen game demanding shorter practices, bigger dorm rooms, better food, and no classes before 11 a.m. This is an absurd decision that will destroy intercollegiate athletics as we know it.”
The irony of this opposition is that it could eventually make athletic programs in these lawmakers’ home states (and all three are football hotbeds) less competitive. While Republicans often tout the benefits of right-to-work laws and other anti-union policies, the better benefits negotiated by organized workers can make certain places more attractive to workers. That could certainly be the case in college football, where unions could lead to benefits — better scholarship protections, full cost-of-attendance scholarships, better educational opportunities, better health care coverage, and, eventually perhaps, better compensation — at certain programs that either force non-unionized programs to follow along or face a competitive disadvantage in trying to attract players. In Connecticut, for instance, lawmakers are already exploring how to make unionization possible for their athletes. Ohio’s top schools may be at a disadvantage if unionized programs in other states are offering better benefits.
That sounds like the opposite of what Republicans argue when they talk about unions, which they say make businesses less competitive and the market less free. But that’s because the “free market” many Republicans prefer is one that doesn’t look all totally different from the NCAA, which operates in a free market for everyone except athletes. Coaches can negotiate with schools, schools can spend as much money as they like, the NCAA and its conferences can negotiate TV contracts and sponsorships and even the use of names, images, and likenesses of its athletes. The system controls the players, free of any concern for workers’ rights, free to treat workers how those at the top see fit, free to band together to determine what athletes should get in return for their service to the bottom lines of the athletic department, the NCAA, and everyone else who benefits from the current structure. This is the case even among many of the conservatives who think the NCAA should do more to help athletes: it is the NCAA and its members that should determine what “more” players get, not the players themselves.
A players union is a direct response to that sort of market’s failures to address the concerns of athletes, and it could help create a freer market — albeit one that is freer for workers at the expense of the business. A union could give athletes rights and a voice in the system in a way that could infringe on the big business’s bottom line. And it’s at that point that stated support for “free markets” cedes to many Republicans’ overriding opposition to the idea that workers should have any direct say in how that market operates.