Weiser: Lawmakers right to protect student-athletes

Ron Weiser

There’s very little that can enrich a life and improve a lifetime’s earnings potential more than a college degree. But in a world where a college education is getting priced further and further out of reach for many working class Michigan families, that degree is poised to get dramatically more expensive if national labor leaders get their way. Thankfully, lawmakers in Lansing are fighting back, taking action earlier this month to protect student athletes and taxpayers alike by classifying college athletes as students, not employees.

With union membership plummeting across the nation, labor leaders are looking for new opportunities to rake in the dues dollars and they’ve set their sights on student athletes, beginning with a push by the United Steelworkers to unionize football players at Northwestern University, right here in Big 10 country. The move, if copied on campuses across the nation, would remake the landscape of college athletics and impose new costs on taxpayer-funded colleges and universities.

None of that matters to labor leaders. Adding the nation’s 460,000 student athletes to their membership rolls would be a huge coup for the Steelworkers, and a big boon to their bank account.

The union’s scheme goes something like this: They arrive on campus, they organize one team or sport at a time, and they force colleges or universities to recognize unpaid student athletes as employees, not students. The scheme creates dozens of difficult and expensive problems for both the athletes and the schools, not least of which would be the possibility that college athletes will have to pay taxes on their “income,” with tuition and living expenses at some schools running more than $40,000 per year.

Of course the United Steelworkers would get their standard 1.45 percent cut, too. With NCAA student athletes on the receiving end of $2.7 billion in athletic scholarships and other direct support from colleges and universities each year, that comes out to over $39 million in new annual union dues.

Worse for colleges and universities are the administrative costs schools would incur if they had to classify athletes as employees, rather than students. Earlier this year, CBS Sports interviewed three power-conference athletic directors to calculate the costs of that kind of reclassification. All three agreed that reclassifying a student athlete as an employee would cost the school an additional 20 percent of that athlete’s scholarship “income.” There’s little wonder that according to a recent Marist College poll, 75 percent of Americans are against college athletes unionizing.

The Detroit News, in its Dec. 10 editorial, argued that lawmakers should wait for the National Labor Relations Board or the NCAA to protect these student athletes and the state’s public, taxpayer-funded universities. However, relying on either of these institutions to protect Michigan’s interests runs an unnecessary and potentially very expensive risk. The NLRB is weighing the Northwestern University case now, but NU is a private school and any eventual ruling will not affect attempts to rewrite the rules of college athletics at Michigan’s public universities.

House Bill 6074, sponsored by State Rep. Al Pscholka and approved this month by the House of Representatives, would protect the pocketbooks of parents, students, and Michigan taxpayers by keeping higher education dollars flowing into our classrooms and ensuring that the proceeds of college athletics fund students’ educations. College and university students in Michigan can’t afford to wait for unelected, out-of-state organizations to get involved.

They deserve action today, and Michigan lawmakers should be commended for taking it.

Ron Weiser, Ann Arbor,

former ambassador to Slovakia