In a dispute between the National Labor Relations Board and the NCAA, we’re tempted to adopt Henry Kissinger’s position on the Iran-Iraq War: It’s a shame that both sides can’t lose.
The NLRB, particularly during the Obama administration, has dropped any pretense of impartiality, often functioning as little more than the government arm of the union movement. For proof, one need look no further than the board’s ludicrous persecution of Boeing for opening a new plant in right-to-work South Carolina instead of union-friendly Washington State (a case that eventually became too ridiculous to sustain).
As for the NCAA, it stands as an object lesson in the pathology of monopolies, inconsistently enforcing its own rules, riddled with conflicts of interest and generally seeming far more interested in making money from college sports than defending the participants.
No amount of NCAA mismanagement, however, can justify the decision from NLRB Regional Director Peter Sung Ohr more than a week ago, when he declared that college football players at Illinois’s Northwestern University were “employees” under the law and thus eligible to unionize. Mr. Ohr’s opinion turns on a novel interpretation of the law, reasoning that because players on scholarship receive “money” (it seems to make no difference to Mr. Ohr that this is functionally payment in kind) in exchange for services, they have collective bargaining rights.
If the underlying rationale of Mr. Ohr’s decision is enough to merit its condemnation, the implications only compound the case. Giving collective bargaining rights to college athletes would mean opening up virtually every aspect of their participation in university sports (not just football — any sport that utilizes scholarships) to negotiation. Moreover, because individual schools, rather than conferences or divisions, are the bargaining units — and because public institutions are exempt from federal labor laws — the decision threatens to throw college sports into chaos. Imagine a Pac-12 where a unionized USC squares off against a UCLA squad without collective bargaining rights.
Northwestern will appeal this decision to the full NLRB in Washington, which would be wise to overrule Mr. Ohr’s flight of fancy. If the NCAA is lucky enough to dodge this bullet, however, it should use the reprieve wisely.
While the Orange County Register objects to the NLRB ruling, it was perhaps inevitable that players would seek legal redress if the NCAA failed to address the tension at the heart of major college sports: The NCAA and its member universities make big money from college athletics, while the players are unable to reap the rewards of an industry built on their talents.
How to solve that problem is an open question. But if it isn’t meaningfully addressed, universities should not be surprised to find the government imposing its own, inevitably flawed, solution.
— From the Orange County Register