The discussion of what college athletes should receive — and whether they deserve more — has been a source of debate for years. A recent regional National Labor Relations Board ruling setting the stage for the first college athletes’ union with collective bargaining rights moved the discussion back onto the front burner. This is the fifth in a five-part series looking at the topic from a Texas Tech point of view.
A ruling in late March that Northwestern athletes should be considered university employees and allowed to unionize stirred up discussion of the potential implications nationwide, even if the ruling applied to just the one school.
That discussion isn’t likely to end soon.
“Who knows whether this ruling will stand?” Texas Tech law professor Bryan Camp said last week. “This is just the start of a potential long process to see whether or not the individual who made this decision about the relationship of Northwestern University to its student-athletes is the correct interpretation of labor law.
“We don’t know it’s the correct interpretation of labor law. It’s just one person’s opinion. It happens to be an important person who has a lot of power, but it won’t be the last word on the subject.”
In a 24-page opinion handed down March 26, the Chicago regional director of the National Labor Relations Board determined that Northwestern athletes fit the definition of employees, citing long hours spent at their sport — as much as 40 to 60 hours a week — and the degree to which coaches and the athletic department regulate their lives in ways not applicable to the average student.
Northwestern players are scheduled to vote on unionization April 25. In the meantime, the university has appealed to the NLRB and, failing in that effort, could challenge the ruling in federal court.
“To me, it’s a surprise,” Tech law professor Brian Shannon said of the ruling. “But I’m not a labor attorney to know many of the intricacies involved in making those assessments. From a layperson’s perspective, the finding that individual (student-athletes) are employees comes as a surprise.”
Shannon is in his sixth year as Tech’s faculty athletics representative to the Big 12 and the NCAA, so he’s familiar with the topics advanced by the College Athletes Players Association, the petitioner in the Northwestern case.
The NCAA has been discussing some of the very same issues.
“So I think to some extent it’s possible that this decision might accelerate the NCAA’s process in trying to complete the governance redesign,” Shannon said.
The CAPA seeks collective bargaining rights to pursue comprehensive reform. According to its website, collegeathletespa.org, the goals include:
■ guaranteed coverage for sports-related medical expenses for current and former players;
■ concussion measures, including less contact in practices, independent concussion experts on sidelines and uniform return-to-play protocol;
■ establishing an educational trust fund to help former players complete their degrees;
■ increasing scholarship value to equal full cost of attendance;
■ allowing athletes to be compensated for sponsorships;
■ securing due-process rights for players accused of rules violations and making punishments consistent across programs.
Even though CAPA does not ask for a pay-for-play model, its objectives have significant financial implications for athletic departments.
“I think it could have an impact, if it stands, on how athletics budgets would have to be reviewed, considered and administered,” Shannon said.
The National Labor Relations Act doesn’t cover government employees, so public universities such as Texas Tech aren’t subject to NLRB rulings. However, a successful push by CAPA could serve as precedent for athletes seeking more benefit in an era of billion-dollar television contracts and multimillion-dollar athletic budgets.
Critics of the athletes’ push have said they could regret tax implications if they do win more monetary benefits.
That might or might not be the case.
Camp, a tax-law attorney, said the Internal Revenue Service makes its own independent judgments, not subject to the NLRB.
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