Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Richard Burr of North Carolina have lashed out at a recent decision by a National Labor Relations Board official to grant Northwestern University football players collective bargaining powers, arguing that college athletes already receive adequate compensation for representing their schools.
"While there may be some issues with intercollegiate athletics, the unionization of intercollegiate athletics is not the solution to the problem," Alexander said on the Senate floor. "The College Board estimates that a college degree adds $1 million to your earnings during a lifetime, so the idea that student athletes do not receive anything in return for their playing a sport is financially wrong."
Burr, who played football at Wake Forest University, said that although unionizing may appeal to a small number of student-athletes, "99 percent" won't become professional athletes and "will come to value the education."
"The value of that education — more than any temporary benefit they might receive while collectively bargaining — will bring a lifetime of higher earnings in their profession, but also a respect for the life lessons they received while playing sports for their schools," Burr told his Senate colleagues.
An NLRB regional director said last month that the Northwestern players met the definition of employees under federal law and are allowed to unionize. The players are set to vote by secret ballot April 25 on whether to form a union, although the university has appealed the decision.
The players say their main concerns are getting better medical coverage, more research into concussions and other traumatic injuries, and limits on hits taken during practice.
Alexander, who ran track at Vanderbilt University, said the NLRB official's ruling "is not the opinion of the entire federal government."
The senators raised the question of whether college athletes would have to pay taxes on their income and whether decisions issued by the NLRB allowing "micro-unions" — or small bargaining units within a single workplace — would allow certain groups of players to unionize and negotiate apart from their fellow players.
"I wonder if quarterbacks would become a micro-union?" Alexander said. "They would say: 'We are more important. Look at the NFL. They get paid a lot more. We want a bigger scholarship than others.' "
The pair also suggested that unionizing amateur athletes would stratify college sports, with only the largest and wealthiest universities able to field teams while smaller institutions wouldn't have the resources to compete.
"If you want to drive the rest of the schools out of major sports, then do this," Alexander said. "Only 10 percent of our nation's athletic programs make money."