The battle lines have been drawn in a congressional hearing room and the usual rhetoric dominates the across the aisle bickering. The Republicans claim the president has stacked the deck, the Democrats claim the Republicans have shelved their duty far too long over an anti union bias and everyone’s threatening to pick up their ball and go home. Ladies and gentlemen, such is the state of college athletics today.

The Congressional House Education and Workforce Committe yesterday took up the matter of college athletes unionizing. The issue became political in February when a group of Northwestern University football players, with backing from the United Steel Workers, announced their intentions to petition for status as employees of the university on the basis that their scholarships amount to payment from the institution, and as university employees they should have the right to unionize.

Not getting enough attention in the matter has been the role of the steelworkers union, which has the alterior motive of adding to it’s own numbers and it’s own strength while making this a clearly political issue.

Acting on the petition from the Northwestern players the Chicago regional office of the National Labor Relations Board ruled in March that the players are indeed university employees and empowered them to vote on unionizing, a vote that was taken last month, but remains sealed. Prior to the vote Northwestern appealed to the full National Labor Relations Board over the ruling by the regional director in Chicago and the ballots will remained sealed until the NLRB issues it’s decision.

Enter congress. Chicago, of course, is the home turf of President Obama and Minnesota Republican John Kline, the chairman of the house committee, immediately drew partisan lines, saying in his opening statement, “Given the track record of the Obama NLRB, I suspect the board will rubber stamp the regional director’s decision, setting a very dangerous precedent.”

The top Democrat on the committee is George Miller of California, who charged the Republicans with having an anti union posture, saying the greivances currently being addressed by the players are the same as grievances that could have been addressed years ago. “We’ve been over this and over this and over this”, said Miller, “You can rail against unionization, but you’d better address the problem.”

Among those to testify at yesterday’s hearing was Stanford athletics director Bernard Muir, who said if players are allowed to unionize the school might “Opt not to compete at the level we are currently competing in.”

Among the others to testify was Baylor president Ken Starr, no stranger to congressional dealings, who said, “The issue of student athlete welfare is now truly a public policy issue.”

Connecticut Democrat Joe Courtney fired a salvo at the NCAA, saying, “It’s created a vacuum in terms of athletes being treated fairly.”

And so it begins. An issue that took root among football players at a university not known as a football power, has now become a political football in the highest halls of our lawmaking process. I’d like to say the matter is now in good hands, but I did mention those halls are the halls of congress, didn’t I?

With a comment from the sports world, I’m Scott Gray.


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