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Jocks on strike? Congress looks at unions organizing athletes

Published: Monday, May 19 2014 12:20 p.m. MDT

Northwestern University spokesman Alan K. Cubbage responds to a question after football players voted on the student athlete union question Friday, April 25, 2014, in Evanston, Ill. Northwestern football players cast secret ballots Friday in an on-campus hall adjacent to their home stadium on whether to form the nation's first union for college athletes.

Charles Rex Arbogast, Associated Press

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With the National Labor Relations Board deliberating whether to clear the way for Northwestern's football team to unionize, a congressional panel met last week to debate how to respond to charges that college atheletes are exploited labor.

Whatever comes of the current dispute at Northwestern, the controversy puts pressure on the NCAA to change how it treats atheletes. Some changes appear to be in the likely result, whichever way the unionization fight goes.

"For its part," the Chronicle of Higher Education notes, "the NCAA has stepped up efforts to help athletes. Last month its Division I Board of Directors approved a measure allowing colleges to provide more meals for players. The board also endorsed changes in the Division I governance structure that are expected to provide wealthy colleges with more autonomy, setting the stage for big-time athletics programs to increase the value of scholarships and to provide new health and welfare benefits."

Many of the lawmakers at the hearing doubted that unionization was a real answer. "Can the NCAA and institutions do more to protect students? Absolutely," said Rep. John P. Kline Jr., a Minnesota Republican and chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee in prepared remarks.

"They could start by giving students a greater role in shaping policies that govern college athletics. They could also work to help ensure a sports injury doesn’t end a student’s academic career and find a responsible solution that will deliver the health care injured players may need. While promoting change is often difficult, student athletes deserve a determined effort to address these concerns," Kline added.

Prior to the hearing, union organizers, including a former UCLA linebacker, expressed fears that Congress would consider legislation that would head off the unionization effort.

"CAPA is concerned that this hearing has been called in an attempt to legitimize the NCAA's illegitimate effort to eliminate college athletes' rights," Ramogi Huma, president of the College Athletes Players Association, told the Associated Press.

Northwestern's football players voted last month on whether to unionize, but the results of the vote will not be made known until after the National Labor Relations Board makes a final determination on whether they are allowed to do so.

ESPN noted that "the ballots will not be opened until after the national NLRB body rules on whether to accept the ruling of its regional director in Chicago that players are employees. But the 76 eligible voters — those scholarship players with remaining NCAA eligibility — are under significant pressure to vote no."

"Head football coach Pat Fitzgerald has led the defensive effort," Slate noted, "which seems befitting for a former linebacker. A generally beloved figure in the locker room and on campus, he has been meeting with players to 'educate' them about the apparently dreadful repercussions of bringing union reps onto campus. Publicly, he’s simply argued that the school can address athletes’ concerns, like better medical care, without collective bargaining."

Email: eschulzke@desnews.com

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