Membership may be down in traditionally unionized industries, but it’s cropping up in unexpected places. One of its most publicized appearances is in the collegiate sports arena.
In March, the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago ruled that Northwestern University football players earning scholarships were employees of the school and therefore had the right to unionize. Although many sports law experts say it’s too early to tell what the decision — if it survives NU’s appeal — means for the colleges it could affect, there are some things school administrations will need to keep in mind to work with organized athletes.
Who will be in the union? Currently, only private schools with Division I athletic teams will be affected if unionization is approved. But Jamie Moorhead, principal with the Moorhead Law Group, said one of the things for administrations to watch is who’s going to be subject to the ruling. “It may be more complicated than the football or basketball players trying to solicit sponsorship, while in smaller sports there may be a question of whether there’s enough funding for a sport to continue.”
What will the union want?“Figuring out the interest of the union will be crucial as well as figuring out the capacity of the university to pay what’s demanded,” said Michael McCann, director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire School of Law and legal analyst and writer for Sports Illustrated.
How do we handle conflict with the union? “Traditionally if workers haven’t gotten what they wanted, they could exercise the right to strike. So what are players going to do? Say ‘We’re not playing this weekend?’” said Matt Mitten, director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University Law School. That might mean having nonunion players who can play in place of unsatisfied unionized athletes.
But it all comes down to uncertainty. “There’s a lot of balls up in the air right now,” McCann said. “The best advice for schools right now is really to wait and see, or at a minimum try to project how much money they’re willing to spend on sports.”
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