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Republicans Formally Oppose A Union For College Athletes

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Sen. Lamar Alexander is one of six Republican lawmakers who submitted a legal brief arguing against a union for college athletes. | Alex Wong via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- After holding a hearing to air their concerns over college football players unionizing, congressional Republicans took their opposition to the idea a step further on Thursday, filing a brief with the federal labor board against collective bargaining for college athletes.

The brief, submitted by six Republicans who help oversee the National Labor Relations Board, took aim at the decision by the agency's regional director in Chicago to allow a union election for athletes at Northwestern University. The lawmakers argued that the ruling "artificially conflated and improperly applied" labor law in determining that the players were employees of the school and therefore covered under the law.

"As a matter of policy and law, this is wrong: scholarship football players are not and should not be treated as ... employees," they wrote. "The inevitable conclusion from the [regional director's] analysis in this case would lead to countless undergraduate students -- in a variety of extracurricular activities -- being considered employees of their colleges and universities."

With the backing of the United Steelworkers, Northwestern players had presented the labor board with a petition earlier this year seeking an election for their would-be union, the College Athletes Players Association. The players' case rested on the argument that college scholarships constitute a form of payment for services rendered and that Northwestern controlled the terms of those services.

The players cleared the first hurdle to their potentially historic unionization effort in March, when Peter S. Ohr, the board's Chicago regional director, issued a ruling letting the election proceed.

That decision, however, has been appealed to the five-member labor board in Washington, which can affirm or overturn Ohr's ruling. (Even if the board sides with the players, Northwestern can still take its case to federal court.) The election went ahead, but the ballots have been impounded until the board makes its determination.

The brief from the six Republican lawmakers was one of a batch of amicus filings in the case on Thursday by interested groups. These include the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which isn't a formal party in the case but could see its entire model shaken by the outcome. In its brief in support of Northwestern, the NCAA contended that letting players unionize would lead to "significant and irreversible, negative impact on the future of intercollegiate athletics and higher education in the United States."

The congressional Republicans on the filing were Rep. John Kline (Minn.), who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce; Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; Rep. Virginia Foxx (N.C.); Rep. Phil Roe (Tenn.); Sen. Johnny Isakson (Ga.); and Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.).

Unions representing athletes in five pro sports -- MLB, MLS, NBA, NFL and NHL -- filed a joint brief in support of the college athletes on Thursday.

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