As Northwestern football players get set to vote on whether to unionize, the Ohio legislature is gearing up to make sure it can't happen at any of their public universities. Republican lawmakers introduced an amendment last week that would clarify that student-athletes are not employees, and today, that amendment passed the House. The amendment now moves on to the Senate.
While Northwestern's players may not vote to unionize, the precedent set by the Chicago regional director of the National Labor Relations Board is still clear – as of now, college athletes at private universities in the region are employees. Although Northwestern has appealed the ruling to the NLRB's national board in DC, should it prove unsuccessful, schools in states that pass amendments like Ohio's could end up being at a recruiting disadvantage. While coaches at private schools would be able to offer recruits the chance to bargain for increased benefits, Urban Meyer would theoretically not be able to do the same for Ohio State recruits.
It will be very difficult for players at schools in right to work states to unionize, and while Ohio isn't a right to work state, this amendment would essentially put its schools on the same playing field as schools in those states – and possibly in a playing field below schools with unionized players. While many student-athlete/employee battles are likely to be fought in hearings with the state labor relations board, passing this amendment would have a similar effect. According to Sports Illustrated legal analyst Michael McCann, the labor board can't overrule state law unless the law is ambiguous.
According to NPR, Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer – like Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald and many other coaches – is opposed to the idea of a union:
"They (athletes) should get a stipend. ... but to say that they can go out and get their own shoe contracts or those kinds of things, I start hearing that and I'm, like, 'Well, what would that do for this great sport?'" he said. "And, really, what would that do for college athletics as a whole?"
While the union seeking to represent Northwestern players isn't asking for shoe contracts or anything of the sort – and while that probably wouldn't kill "this great sport" anyways – that figures to be the position of those in authority who are in favor of the current collegiate sports model.
What it will take for there to be widespread unionization is significant intervention by an outsider. In Ohio, it looks like fans of the current system may be able to prevent that from happening.
Kevin Trahan is the co-founder of Inside Northwestern and an intern at SB Nation. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and USA TODAY.