Ohio Doesn't Need No Stinking College Athlete Unions

Ohio State Buckeyes after winning a game in Columbus on Sept. 9 Photograph by David E. Klutho /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Republican lawmakers in Ohio have an opinion about college athlete unions. We know this because they just added a provision to the budget bill up for a vote today asserting that students at state universities are “not public employees” based on their participation in athletic programs.

The provision is a response to the National Labor Relations Board ruling in March that labeled football players at Northwestern University (in Illinois) employees and allowed them to hold a union vote later this month. Presumably, the lawmakers would like to shield Ohio State’s Buckeyes and the rest of the state’s athletic programs from such a destabilizing move.

“I think we’re proactively restating that college athletes are not employees,” Republican representative Ron Amstutz, the bill’s sponsor sponsor, told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “If it ever comes up, it will be in the law.”

Proactive restatements, apparently, are the new empty gestures. As the Enquirer points out, Ohio law already defines employees in a way that would seem to exclude college athletes. And nothing in the new provision would stop college athletes from challenging the status quo in front of the State Employment Relations Board. Finally, the Northwestern ruling, if it survives appeal, will change the legal status for athletes at private universities only. State schools are subject to state laws.

Yet Ohio’s lawmakers are right to be afraid. The ripples created by the Northwestern ruling will not stop at the Illinois state line. If any NCAA school allows athletes to come to the bargaining table as employees, it will change the competitive landscape for all of them. NCAA President Mark Emmert acknowledged as much earlier this week when he said that the union-employee model would “blow up everything about the collegiate model of athletics.” If that explosion comes, the Ohio legislature’s restatement will be pointless at best and possibly counterproductive.

As Time has noted, schools that grant employee status to athletes would likely have an advantage in recruiting. If so, big programs at public universities in states that don’t allow for unions may well apply pressure on lawmakers to loosen the rules, not tighten them. If Ohio’s lawmakers really want to stay ahead of change and help the Buckeyes, they should probably subtract the word “not” from their provision.

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