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OPINION - College football and the union label

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) Congress may get involved in the college football union issue. If you're not up-to-speed on this, you should be. It could completely change the landscape of college athletics. A local National Labor Relations Board ruling says that college football players are actually employees of the schools they play for, and therefore have collective bargaining rights. Northwestern University players can unionize under this ruling. It's being appealed to the full NLRB. Then it will move into the courts.

The ruling can be reasoned to absurdity. If student-athletes are employees, do they owe back taxes on the value of their scholarships? Shouldnt FICA taxes and social security be withheld? Does it count against their federal refunds? If they're employees, shouldn't every injury during practice or in a game be reclassified as a workers' comp case? If they're employees, shouldn't they get overtime if a spring practice session lasts more than 8-hours? Can a school 'fire' a player? Are rules that dont allow students to transfer from one school to another without losing eligibility illegal under anti-trust laws? Is the whole concept of four years of college eligibility out the window? (What other job allows you to work only four years and then kicks you out?)

Truth is, the relationship between a college football player and his school is nothing like an employer-employee relationship.

Even the reasoning behind the Northwestern University ruling is illogical. It holds that football players spend too much time playing and not enough time in class. It also holds that schools make millions of dollars from their football programs, and none of it flows to the players. Both positions are irrelevant to whether an employer-employee relationship exists. How much time you spend at a task doesnt make you an employee; you could be in an employment relationship if you work only one or two hours a week, and you might not be in an employment relationship if you work 60 hours a week (perhaps you're a very hard working volunteer for a favorite charity). How much money is made off your labor also doesnt determine if youre an employee. Employers lose money on labor all the time. Is the NLRB actually arguing that the football player is a school employee, but the womens crew coxswain isn't, because one sport is a money-maker and the other isn't?

There are many people who are rooting for the players in this case; that's because of NCAA abuses, not labor law. And the NCAA is reaping what it sowed for not allowing summer jobs, or travel stipends, overbearing eligibility rules, and the pulling the scholarships of injured players. An organization that sells the broadcast rights for its tournaments for billions of dollars and then treats players high-handedly is likely to face some public backlash. Public opinion of the NCAA is on-par with cable companies, lawyers, and your cellphone provider. But even a dislike of the NCAA doesnt make the case for a college football union. The NCAA is the oversight group for college sports. Disliking them doesnt mean the employee-employee rules can be trampled for college and universities around the country.

This entire case shows how out-of-whack the National Labor Relations Board is within the Obama administration. This is the same federal agency that championed card-check, where a company could be unionized based on workers signing union cards instead of a vote. And the NLRB is currently reviewing the Volkswagen-Chattanooga vote against unionizing, on the thin grounds that politicians and private citizens used their free-speech rights to advocate on both sides of the issue.

The entire concept of the student-athlete is a sham. It has been for years. The football locker rooms would me much less crowded if players had to meet the same academic standards as other students. Instead scholarships are offered to students who barely graduated high school. This merry farce could have continued much longer, until the unhinged-from-reality NLRB got involved.

Chris Conley

Photo: UCF Knights at the Texas goal-line, Sept 17, 2007,via WikiCommons.com