Education

Public-Sector Unions' Newest Members: College Athletes?

A recent court ruling has spurred some states to decide whether college athletes can organize.
by | April 23, 2014
Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier holds the championship trophy after defeating Kentucky 60-54, at the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game Monday, April 7, 2014, in Arlington, Texas. AP/David J. Phillip
 

It’s easy to look at Shabazz Napier, senior point guard for the national champion University of Connecticut men's basketball team, and assume he’s got it made. The NBA beckons, endorsement deals await and Napier’s emotional celebration on the court following UConn’s win over the University of Kentucky in the national championship game earlier this month made him a media favorite. So it’s natural to forget that players like Napier aren’t actually financially secure – yet.

Napier told reporters before the national championship that it's hard for him to see his jersey getting sold while he struggles to find enough money to eat. "To some credit, you feel like you want something in return,” he said. “There are hungry nights that I go to bed and I am starving.”

Soon, players like Napier may be able to organize and demand more guarantees in return for their commitment to a college.

Following a ruling by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board that Northwestern University football players receiving athletic scholarships were employees and could organize, two states are weighing their options. (The labor board ruling only covers private schools.) In Connecticut, the state legislature is considering measures that would allow athletes at public colleges and universities to join unions. In Ohio, lawmakers are considering the opposite – barring college athletes from collective bargaining.

Connecticut State Rep. Matthew Lesser, who is behind the effort in his legislature, said Napier’s comments spurred him and others to consider the labor law changes. “It’s a big business in all respects except that athletes have no rights,” he said. “There’s a general sense that it’s an exploitive process. That’s not Connecticut’s fault, that’s not UConn’s fault, it’s really the NCAA which is acting like a cartel.”

Since 1980, union membership has gone from about 20 percent of the workforce to less than 12 percent. But Steven Malanga, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow, believes the potential for college athletes to unionize presents an opportunity amid declining membership. (Albeit if only for the short duration of an athlete’s collegiate career.) He notes a labor board ruling in 2000 that allowed graduate teaching assistants on college campuses to unionize spurred organization at public universities in a number of states, including California, Massachusetts, Oregon, Michigan, Illinois and Rhode Island. So far, only the private labor groups have jumped at the opportunity and the United Auto Workers union has targeted the graduate students as part of an effort to expand its ranks.

The laws allowing collective bargaining vary state-by-state, although five (Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Texas) ban it outright for public employees with the exception of public safety workers in Texas and firefighters in Georgia. Malanga predicts that most states will scurry to address the issue for college athletes in the coming years. He says that states with big-name programs (like Ohio and Connecticut) are likely to act first. A key difference between college athletes and regular workers, however, is that top athletics programs do heavy recruiting out-of-state.

“The question will become, if we have unionization at some places but not others, how will this affect recruiting,” Malanga said.

At least one ratings agency believes that unionization will hurt recruiting prospects for colleges. Last month, Moody’s issued a note warning that the Northwestern ruling, among other recent legal developments, threatened the NCAA’s standard of amateurism and hurts colleges’ and universities’ bottom lines. “In the absence of amateurism, players would likely gain additional compensation, greatly increasing the need for [athletic departments’] subsidization,” Analyst Dennis Gephardt wrote. He also added that, “a market regime with no limits on player benefits,” would create vast disparity in schools’ abilities to compete for top players, and ultimately competitiveness and parity in the NCAA overall would suffer.

But Lesser notes that there are issues that athletes can bargain for, like eligibility for product sponsorships, that don’t affect a school’s bottom line. “Right now, a guy like Shabazz Napier can’t even work another job to get money to buy pizza,” he said. “We’re trying to do something about that.”

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