Labor unions have had a tough run of late, with membership and popularity with taxpayers on the wane. The shocking defeat in February of a two-year effort by the UAW to organize a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, despite a National Labor Relations Board effort to grease the skids for unionization, punctuates their woes.
But as college sports fans everywhere celebrate the latest, deliciously unpredictable iteration of March Madness, a National Labor Relations Board administrator in Chicago has issued an opinion that would effectively end the concept of amateur college sports, an offense for which, if it happens, labor may never be forgiven.
Peter Ohr, Regional Director of the Chicago office of the NLRB, this week issued an opinion that scholarship football players at Northwestern University are "employees" of the university and ergo entitled to unionize. Ohr said that scholarship players devote 50 to 60 hours per week to training camp and 40 to 50 hours a week during the four-month football season to their sports. He said because of that, they are employees first and students second. "Not only is this more hours than many undisputed full-time employees work at their job," he said, "it is also many more hours than the players spend on their studies."
The implications of this decision, if it stands, are great for all college sports and perhaps beyond. If players are indeed employees, then it follows they must be paid at least minimum wage, and overtime, get mandatory work breaks and all the other provisions of state and federal wage and hour laws.
And if athletes playing for college programs are "employed", then what about all of the youths playing basketball, football, soccer and tennis for their high schools? Aren't they now "pros" too, such that they can form unions and must be paid?
Absurd as it sounds, Ohr's decision is likely to get a friendly hearing at the next level. Northwestern says it will appeal, but the appeal will go to the full National Labor Relations Board in Washington, which was recently stacked with pro-union members after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid invoked the "nuclear option" and did away with filibuster rules Republicans had used to block them.
This is of course the M.O. of the Obama administration and the left - using executive action to make end runs around the law and impose their liberal world view on the nation. Liberals have disdain for big college programs because they make big money - money that the colleges use to underwrite operating expenses, granted, but it's still money - and they don't directly pay the athletes (awarding scholarships instead).
It is the amateur nature of college sports that for many fans is the essence of its appeal. It brings a level of parity to the programs that allows teams like Mercer to take down Duke, or Dayton to topple Ohio State, as happened in the first round of this year's NCAA Basketball Tournament. We also think you'll be hard-pressed to find players on any college team who say they've played all of their lives not for love of the game, but to get "paid." Ohr's opinion is in that regard an insult to the dedication of college athletes everywhere.
Nonetheless there's a real danger that this sop to unions by minions of the Obama administration could stand, thus wrecking a great American tradition. If that happens, college sports fans aren't ever going to forget about it.