In a discussion on the floor of the United States Senate, Senator Lamar Alexander and Senator Richard Burr (R-N.C.) Thursday night warned that the unionization of college athletes, as permitted by a recent National Labor Relations Board regional director’s decision, would destroy college sports and harm the entire American system of higher education.
“Our message is that the opinion of one regional director of the National Labor Relations Board is not the opinion of the entire federal government,” Senator Alexander said. “While there may be some issues with intercollegiate athletics, the unionization of intercollegiate athletics is not the solution to the problem. The College Board estimates that a college degree adds $1 million to your earnings during a lifetime, so the idea that student athletes do not receive anything in return for their playing a sport is financially wrong.”
Senator Burr said, “Although the idea of unionizing might sound good to a very small number of student-athletes considering doing so, it is important we think of the 99 percent of student-athletes who never reach the professional levels of their respective sports and will come to value the education – when they become professionals in other fields – they received while competing for their colleges or universities. The value of that education – more than any temporary benefit they might receive while collectively bargaining – will bring a lifetime of higher earnings in their profession but also a respect for the life lessons they received while playing sports for their schools. I hope the NLRB’s regional office’s decision does not threaten that for these students.”
Both senators once participated in intercollegiate athletics, Senator Burr as a scholarship football player at Wake Forest University and Senator Alexander as a non-scholarship member of the track team at Vanderbilt University. Both detailed the practical consequences of student athletes suddenly finding themselves "employees" of their universities under federal labor laws.
They raised the question of whether athletes would have to pay taxes on their income, and whether decisions issued by the Obama administration’s National Labor Relations Board allowing “micro-unions”—or small bargaining units within a single workplace—would allow certain groups of players to unionize and negotiate apart from their fellow players.
Senator Alexander said, “I wonder if quarterbacks would become a micro-union. They would say: We are more important. Look at the NFL. They get paid a lot more. We want a bigger scholarship than others.”
Senator Burr said, “As one who remembers August practices in the South -- hottest time of the year, three practices a day -- the first thing I would bargain out for all players is that I would have to get my ankles taped at 4:30 in the morning, that I would have to go all day and most of the night, and that I could not take that tape off until 8:30 after three practices. I would negotiate away the smell of dead grass in August, a memory every college football player, as a matter of fact every football player, has of that dead grass in summer practice in hot weather.”
They also raised questions about the impact of unionization on other student groups and on smaller schools.
Senator Alexander said, “What is going to happen to the smaller schools? What is going to happen to the minor sports? What is going to happen to the title IX women's sports if for some reason a union forces universities to have a much more expensive athletic program for a few sports?”
Senator Burr said, “On the face of it, it creates a great inequity between public and private schools, where we have a governing body that tries to make this process as equitable as it can. But let me make this point: If you want to drive the rest of the schools out of major sports, then do this. Only 10 percent of our nation's athletic programs make money. That means 90 percent of them lose in the athletic department. But for the quality of life of all students, not just athletes, they continue and their alumni continue to subsidize it.”
As a result of his football playing, Senator Burr said he had four operations during his time at the school. “Probably the only record I hold at Wake Forest is the total number of inches of scars on my body. Because of modern medicine, that record will not be broken because they do not do surgery that way anymore. But I think it is best summed up by our current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, when he said this: ‘When sports are done right, when priorities are in order, there is no better place to teach invaluable life lessons than on a playing field or court....Discipline, selflessness, resilience, passion, courage, those are all on display in the NCAA.’ Why would we do anything to risk that? Not only do I believe this is risky, I think just a consideration of it is enough to make us -- or should make us reject this quickly, not embrace it.”
Senator Alexander was a member of a 440-yard relay team at Vanderbilt that set the school record. The NCAA named him one of its "100 Most Influential Student-Athletes.” He was U.S. Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush.
When he was president of University of Tennessee he served on the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. Reading from the Knight Commission report of 1989, Senator Alexander said, “Here is something that this group of university presidents and others emphasized. They said: ‘We reject the argument that the only realistic solution to the problem [of intercollegiate athletics]--and there have always been some -- is to drop the student-athlete concept, put athletes on the payroll, and reduce or even eliminate their responsibilities as students. Such a scheme has nothing to do with education, the purpose for which colleges and universities exist. Scholarship athletes are already paid in the most meaningful way possible: with a free education. The idea of intercollegiate athletics is that the teams represent their institutions as true members of the student body, not as hired hands. Surely American higher education has the ability to devise a better solution to the problems of intercollegiate athletics than making professionals out of the players, which is no solution at all but rather an unacceptable surrender to despair.’ This was the Knight Commission 25 years ago.”