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COLUMBUS — State pushback against a movement to unionize college athletes has begun in Ohio, the football-loving heart of a heated anti-labor campaign in 2011 and home to one of America’s highest-grossing collegiate franchises, the Ohio State Buckeyes.
A measure approved by the state House on Wednesday, two weeks after a federal agency said football players at Northwestern University could unionize, clarifies that college athletes aren’t public employees. The proposal appears to be the first of its kind to clear a state legislative chamber; it heads next to the state Senate.
The opposite is happening in Connecticut, where lawmakers are looking at clearing the path for college athletes to unionize. Some observers, though, think other states are more likely to follow Ohio’s lead.
“This is a pre-emptive move,” said John Russo, a union organization expert who formerly directed Youngstown State University’s Center for Working-Class Studies.
The National Labor Relations Board official ruled March 26 that full-scholarship players at Northwestern University in Illinois are employees and therefore eligible to unionize. The university has appealed ahead of a vote by the athletes April 25.
Northwestern athletes leading the effort say they simply want a seat at the table since they have so little say on injuries, insurance, finances, scheduling and other aspects of their sports.
Federal labor law is in play at Northwestern because it’s private, but states control policy at public universities — including giants such as Ohio State, Florida State, Michigan and Alabama, whose athletic programs generate millions in annual revenue. Federal data show Ohio State’s athletic department generated $123 million in revenue last year, sixth-highest in the country.
Michael McCann, director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire, said he would not be surprised to see other states, especially those with powerful athletic programs at public colleges, follow the lead of lawmakers in Ohio.
But, he added, a declaration that college athletes aren’t public employees might create an uneven playing field if athletes at private universities can unionize and receive benefits while those at public colleges in the same state can’t.
“In theory, it could give the private universities a recruiting advantage,” McCann said.
Such a law also would go even a step beyond “right-to-work” states that have laws that would prevent athletes from unionizing but still allow them to be considered public employees, Russo said.
In Connecticut — home to the teams at the public University of Connecticut that won both the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball titles this week — lawmakers are evaluating whether state law allows athletes to join a union.
“If there are any artificial barriers, then we should remove them,” said Democratic state Rep. Patricia Dillon, noting athletes shouldn’t be forced to join unions. “But there’s no question that the whole concept of student-athletes was unjust from the beginning.”
The National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks statehouse legislation nationwide, said it doesn’t know of proposals on college unionization in any other states, perhaps because many legislatures are out of session.
But Russo believes it’s coming.
“All these individual states that have public-sector universities, they’re going to move fast to say those athletes aren’t public employees,” said Russo, now a visiting research fellow at Virginia Tech.
The Ohio proposal’s chances in the Senate are unclear. That chamber spearheaded a 2011 law limiting the bargaining powers of police, firefighters, teachers and other public workers. Voters later overwhelming repealed it.
The leader of a powerful labor union in Ohio criticized lawmakers for pushing for a change in defining athletes before hearing their concerns.
“They should try to engage in a productive way by dealing with the real concerns of fairness and safety where the players and university leaders have expressed common themes for change,” said Ohio AFL-CIO President Tim Burga.
Ohio has a deep love affair with football, from high school to the NFL, which took root in Canton, now home to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The state has eight football bowl subdivision teams, all of which would be affected by the employee-athlete provision.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said after the Northwestern ruling that he’s always been “pro-student.”
“They (athletes) should get a stipend. ... but to say that they can go out and get their own shoe contracts or those kinds of things, I start hearing that and I’m, like, ‘Well, what would that do for this great sport?’” he said. “And, really, what would that do for college athletics as a whole?”
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