Two members of the U.S. Senate and three members of the House are introducing legislation Thursday that would make college athletes at public schools employees of the schools and give them the right to collectively bargain.
The measure would amend the National Labor Relations Act so that any college athlete who is receiving an athletic scholarship would be considered an employee, according to a copy of the bill obtained by USA TODAY Sports. It would give athletes the option of organizing into multi-school bargaining units that would be allowed to negotiate wages and other working conditions with several schools within the same conference.
The new bill is being led in the Senate by Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a longtime critic of the NCAA, and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. The House sponsors are Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y.; Andy Levin, D-Mich.; and Lori Trahan, D-Mass. It echoes efforts seven years ago to unionize Northwestern University’s scholarship football players.
“Big time college sports haven’t been ‘amateur’ for a long time, and the NCAA has long denied its players economic and bargaining rights while treating them like commodities," Murphy said in statement. The bill would “help athletes get the pay and protections they deserve and forces the NCAA to treat them as equals rather than second-class citizens. It’s a civil rights issue, and a matter of basic fairness.”
NCAA officials and college sports administrators have opposed the athlete-as-employee concept. (Photo: Aaron Doster, USA TODAY Sports)
This becomes the fifth bill related to college sports to be offered in this Congressional session and the second involving Murphy and Trahan. Its introduction further demonstrates the complexity of efforts to find a compromise measure related to college sports that would include a resolution of ongoing issues connected to athletes’ ability to make money from their name, image and likeness (NIL).
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., has spoken publicly about these efforts, advocating for a bill that he has introduced and believes offers the best vehicle for a deal.
The athlete-as-employee concept historically has been ferociously opposed by NCAA officials and college sports administrators. It goes even farther for athletes than did a college athletes “bill of rights” that was introduced late in the last session of Congress by Sens. Corey Booker, D-N.J., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. That bill would have provided athletes with a range of other benefits, including long-term health care. Booker and Blumenthal and continuing to pursue those benefits, although they have not re-introduced their bill.
Six states have passed laws that would let college athlete make money from their NIL, beginning July 1. The NCAA’s member schools also have been close to voting on significant changes to the association’s NIL rules, but in some cases the state laws would conflict with NCAA rules. The NCAA and major conferences have been lobbying lawmakers for a federal solution that includes legal protection from antitrust challenges to the association’s athlete-compensation rules.
The union effort at Northwestern ultimately failed when the National Labor Relations Board decided in August 2015 not to accept jurisdiction over a petition to unionize the players. The board explicitly did not rule on whether players are university employees, and players’ ballots in the vote on whether unionize remained sealed.
The bill being introduced Thursday explicitly deals with the board's approach in that situation. It would amend the National Labor Relation Act so that it says the board "shall exercise jurisdiction" over colleges and college-athlete employees in "all collective bargaining matters … including any representation matter, such as recognizing or establishing a bargaining unit" for the athletes.
In February, Murphy and Trahan introduced a bill that that would enhance college and high school athletes’ ability to make money from their NIL while leaving the NCAA and its schools susceptible to antitrust challenges if they do not comply with the bill’s provisions.
That bill also aims to prevent colleges from taking any action to prevent college athletes from forming a “collective representative to facilitate group licensing agreements or provide representation for college athletes.”
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