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Senators Say Northwestern Unionization Effort Prompts Important Questions

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Blumenthal, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said his panel would have partial jurisdiction over the student-athlete employment question. The Connecticut Democrat said the panel should consider looking into the issue.

Lawmakers could intensify debate on a historic attempt by Northwestern University football players to become the first college athletes to unionize, from holding highly visible Capitol Hill hearings to potentially expanding federal labor laws to protect the rights of student-athletes.

Beltway politicians often have weighed in on, and to some degree shaped, sports policy. In the past decade alone, Congress has amplified the public dialogue on steroids in baseball, the college football bowl system and concussions in the National Football League, often to the chagrin of the leagues involved. The national debate over whether college athletes are entitled to the benefits other employees receive could prove no different.

“I’ve always said, they ought to consider paying players because the coach gets millions of dollars and the player gets nothing. I think we ought to consider compensation,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., an avid sports fan. “I don’t see unionization getting that far, but if they want to try, that’s fine.”

The politicians, lobbyists, labor organizations and lawyers approached by CQ Roll Call for this story all seemed to believe the question of whether college athletes are entitled to more rights — from health care benefits to scholarship guarantees and even payment — is worth asking.

It will all boil down to an essential fight between the powerful National Collegiate Athletic Association and its detractors over the definition of “employee” and whether that designation fits the more than 400,000 NCAA student-athletes. In 2012, the NCAA generated more than $870 million in revenue.

“There’s no difference in the way professional and college sports are managed these days. If you look at the BCS Championship and the Super Bowl, the only difference is that after the BCS Championship, the players go to class the next day ” said ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, who is also a lawyer at the firm Moore and Van Allen in Charlotte, N.C.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the Judiciary Committee, said the panel would have at least partial jurisdiction over the student-athlete employment question and should consider looking into the issue.

“College athletics more and more seems to involve elements of quid pro quo that can be compensation and may give students rights of employees even if they don’t have the full measure of compensation that full-time workers may have in other contexts,” Blumenthal said.

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