EDITORIAL: Sack the idea of unionizing college athletes


Unions are desperate to boost declining membership. Through 2013, only 11.3 percent of wage and salary workers belonged to unions. Growing public-sector membership is the only reason the figure is that high — 35.3 percent of government employees belong to a union, while just 6.7 percent of private-sector workers are union members. Where can unions go to organize new members? Where left-leaning thought and indoctrination rule the day: college campuses.

On March 26, the Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern University football players qualify as employees and can therefore unionize. As reported by ESPN.com’s Brian Bennett, NLRB Regional Director Peter Sung Ohr cited as reasons for granting collective bargaining rights the players’ time commitment to their sport — 50 to 60 hours per week during preseason training and 40 to 50 hours per week during the school year — restrictions on their living arrangements and personal lives, and the fact that their scholarships were tied directly to their performance on the field.

Mr. Ohr declared the players can hold a vote on whether they want to be represented by the College Athletes Players Association, which brought the case to the NLRB along with former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and the United Steelworkers union. For the moment, Mr. Ohr’s ruling applies to private universities, because the federal labor agency does not have jurisdiction over public universities. (That could change, given the makeup of President Barack Obama’s NLRB.)

There’s big money in major college football, and unions want a cut. But what’s lost in all the hand-wringing over rising coaching salaries and costly stadium upgrades is the fact that universities invest in their football programs to pay for nearly every other sport. Generally speaking, athletic departments are not profitable. USA Today reported last July that just 23 of 228 athletic departments at NCAA Division I public schools generated enough money to cover their expenses in 2012. (UNLV was not one of them.) Just a few private universities — Notre Dame and Southern California, for example — have the football prowess to pay all the athletic department bills. Unions increase costs for employers, so it’s safe to say that colleges with unionized athletes would wind up reducing total scholarships or eliminating entire teams altogether.

It’s hard to imagine an environment less suitable for union interference than college sports. For starters, sport is the ultimate meritocracy. There are consequences for poor performance and a lack of discipline, from the loss of playing time for athletes to declining fan support to the firing of coaches. One of the primary functions of unions is to protect underperformers from accountability. Would coaches be able to suspend or dismiss unionized student-athletes for a violation of team rules, a failure to meet academic obligations or a criminal conviction? Or would such punishments be subject to union appeals? And under what circumstances, exactly, would a college team go on strike?

It’s not like college athletes are forced to compete. They work through their childhoods and teens for the chance to play college sports. They choose to sign letters of intent and accept scholarships, and the terms, conditions and NCAA regulations that accompany them. And in exchange, colleges offer an undergraduate education and living expenses. At some private universities, that compensation can be worth more than $300,000 over four or five years. There’s no prospect of long-term employment. Scholarship benefits are not taxed as income. And these are “jobs”?

Unions have dragged down public education and sent the cost of government skyward. Now they’re after college athletics? If college football players are asked to form a union, they should follow the lead of private-sector workers and punt.

 

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