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Hearing on athletes' union worries activist

Wednesday, May 7, 2014 | 7:56 p.m. CDT

CHICAGO  — A former linebacker leading the drive to form the nation's first union for college athletes said Wednesday he fears a congressional hearing could be a step toward legislative barriers that would thwart unionization.

The hearing is scheduled for Thursday in Washington, D.C., before the House Education and the Workforce Committee. It comes in the wake of a landmark ruling by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board that football players at Northwestern University are employees under U.S. law and can therefore unionize.

The Evanston, Ill., school appealed the ruling, saying college athletes are not employees and such a change would transform the landscape of amateur athletics in the United States.

The House committee shouldn't bolster those anti-union views, said Ramogi Huma, president of the College Athletes Players Association that's seeking to represent the Wildcats.

"CAPA is concerned that this hearing has been called in an attempt to legitimize the NCAA's illegitimate effort to eliminate college athletes' rights," the former UCLA player said. He added the NCAA is "working to strip college athletes of their newly asserted rights."

Northwestern players cast ballots April 25 on whether to unionize. But the labor agency sealed the ballot boxes until the school's appeal plays out.

The Minnesota Republican who will chair Thursday's hearing, John Kline, has made clear he thinks the NLRB's finding was wrong.

"Classifying student athletes as employees threatens to fundamentally alter college sports," he said in a statement last week announcing the hearing. He called the ruling "a radical departure from longstanding federal labor policies."

Five witnesses are scheduled to testify, including Ken Starr, Baylor University's president, and Bernard Muir, athletic director at Stanford University. No one from Northwestern or from the would-be union was on the witness list.

Kline's spokesman, Brian Newell, said the hearing wasn't designed to lead to any legislative proposal.

"This is basically a fact-finding hearing, an opportunity to hear from stakeholders," he said.

The case is being closely watched, though the NLRB ruling would only apply to private schools, like Northwestern. Public universities are subject to state labor laws.

New York labor attorney Joseph Farelli said anti-union lawmakers could introduce a bill stating explicitly that the National Labor Relations Act can't be applied to college athletes. But he said all other attempts to significantly alter the act have failed over the last 50 years.

"So the question becomes — is there support in Congress to amend it now?" he said. "I think the short answer is, no."


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