By Sara Agnew, Iowa City Press-Citizen
Iowa athletics director Gary Barta said he doesn’t think student-athletes are employees and finds the recent ruling allowing Northwestern University’s scholarship football players to unionize to be misguided.
“The core of this discussion is student-athlete welfare,” Barta said Thursday during a meeting of UI’s Presidential Committee on Athletics. “I think (the decision) is fraught with challenges. We evaluate student-athletes differently than we evaluate employees.”
Besides that, Barta said the case, in which the National Labor Relations Board said scholarship football players are employees, doesn’t apply to Iowa because UI is a public institution, and the NLRB only regulates private institutions. Barta hopes the controversial case will prompt discussions about issues facing student-athletes and lead to improvements.
“If we can get to these student-athlete issues, I think that’s important,” he said.
On March 26, a regional director of the NLRB ruled that scholarship football players at Northwestern are employees of the university and thus have a right to unionize and fight for better health care coverage, larger scholarship funds and other benefits. The ruling, however, is limited in scope because the NLRB only regulates private institutions and the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I teams are dominated by state schools.
The players took action because they said they were tired of a system that makes money off their hard work but leaves them with no compensation.
PCA chairman and UI law professor Bill Hines said he suspects the case will most likely be appealed to the United States Supreme Court and won’t be decided until at least 2016 or 2017.
“The students at Northwestern probably won’t be there anymore when this is settled,” he said.
Hines said he read the 24-page ruling and found it “fascinating.”
“It spells out the life a football player at Northwestern,” he said. “It finds that the football players aren’t primarily students. They were employees … and that scholarships are compensation for athletic services, not education.”
Hines said much of what he read about the demands on Northwestern football players reminded him of the expectations of Hawkeye football players.
Barta said there are a number of issues that are being looked at to improve the welfare of student-athletes. For example, creating an educational trust fund that can be tapped by athletes who leave to go pro before graduating but later discover they want to finish their degree.
Another idea is to declare what Barta called “unilateral disarmaments,” which would be implemented to head-off intense training fueled by ratcheting up competition. The idea would be to designate certain periods of time in which athletes would be prohibited from training, period.
“I think it would be healthy for the athletes and healthy for the coaches,” Barta said, adding it would only work if the other teams in the Big Ten Conference bought into the idea.
Barta would like to see higher academic standards for student-athletes, something he said he’s pushed for previously.
Barta also told the committee the university pays for all medical expenses for UI student-athletes for up to two years after they graduate.
“Can we improve on these student-athlete welfare issues?” Barta asked. “Yes, but I believe the vast majority of our student-athletes have a positive experience.”