Government lawyers set out to reorder college sports

A regional director of the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that scholarship football players at Northwestern University are “employees” and therefore should be allowed to organize a union. The United Steelworkers Union is backing the unionization effort at Northwestern.

The ruling is the latest example of law’s imperial intrusion (this time by a bureaucrat, rather than a judge) into aspects of American life where it does not belong. College football players aren’t employees of their university; they are students participating in a school activity. To be sure, some of them don’t study or even attend class. But that’s also true of some non-athlete students.

The fact that some athletes aren’t taking advantage of the opportunity afforded by their scholarship, doesn’t make them “employees.” And the remedy isn’t unionization; the remedy is studying.

Big-time college athletics, though much derided by some (mainly sportswriters trying to show they are above what they cover), is a great example of a privately arranged set-up that benefits almost everyone. Colleges and universities with big-time programs benefit from the revenue that comes their way and from pleasing many alums. Many alums and many students benefit by being pleased.

The athletes benefit (if they so desire) by getting a free education. They also receive the opportunity to compete against opponents their own age, often in packed houses. What is more desirable for most 20 year-olds: being a star athlete on campus or busing from town to town in a minor league?

Certainly, athletes might benefit more if they received additional perks and benefits. But it’s not the job of “the law” to redistribute benefits through the subterfuge of a ridiculous definition of “employee.” Doing so, moreover, will undoubtedly produce consequences — some intended, some not — that might well decrease the overall benefits that accrue under the current arrangement.

There is one fundamental unfairness in the current college athletics arrangement, though. Athletes are coerced into participating in it because the NFL and the NBA (presumably encouraged by universities with big-time programs) won’t permit athletes to play in their leagues when they leave high school.

Since this policy clearly curbs the freedom of young athletes, it arguably raises genuine legal concerns. Thus if there’s any place for the law in this realm, it lies in examining the eligibility rules set by professional leagues, not in applying labor law to students.

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