WASHINGTON, April 11 – In a discussion on the floor of the United States Senate (VIDEO HERE), Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), and Senator Richard Burr (R-N.C.) last night warned that the unionization of college athletes, as permitted by a recent National Labor Relations Board regional director’s decision, would destroy college sports and harm the entire American system of higher education.
Transcript of Remarks on Unionization of College Athletes Made by U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander and U.S. Senator Richard Burr
Delivered on April 11, 2014 on Senate Floor
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander: The Senator from North Carolina and I were both involved in intercollegiate athletics. He was a scholarship athlete at Wake Forest University and I was a non-scholarship track person at Vanderbilt University several years before that.
We are here today to make a few comments on the recent ruling by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board that defines student athletes as employees of the university. It affects only private universities for now-- not the University of Tennessee. But it would affect Wake Forest, where the Senator from North Carolina was an outstanding football player, and it would affect Vanderbilt, where I attended.
I guess our message to the NCAA and intercollegiate athletes is: We hope they will understand the opinion of one regional director of the National Labor Relations Board is not the opinion of the entire Federal Government. That is the message I would like to deliver.
I would refer back -- and then I will go to the Senator from North Carolina -- to 25 years ago, when I was the president of the University of Tennessee, and I was asked to serve on the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. It was headed by the president of North Carolina, Bill Friday, and the head of Notre Dame, Father Hesburgh -- a pretty distinguished group of individuals from around the country -- to take a look at intercollegiate athletics.
The major conclusion they came to was that presidents need to assert more institutional control over athletics.
But here is something that this group of university presidents and others emphasized. They said:
We reject the argument that the only realistic solution to the problem [of intercollegiate athletics] -- and there have always been some -- is to drop the student-athlete concept, put athletes on the payroll, and reduce or even eliminate their responsibilities as students.
Such a scheme has nothing to do with education, the purpose for which colleges and universities exist. Scholarship athletes are already paid in the most meaningful way possible: with a free education. The idea of intercollegiate athletics is that the teams represent their institutions as true members of the student body, not as hired hands. Surely American higher education has the ability to devise a better solution to the problems of intercollegiate athletics than making professionals out of the players, which is no solution at all but rather an unacceptable surrender to despair.
This was the Knight Commission 25 years ago.
U.S. Sen. Richard Burr: Let me say to my good friend, the Senator from Tennessee -- who not only was a walk-on track member at Vanderbilt, but was the president of the University of Tennessee, the Governor of Tennessee, the Secretary of Education, and now is a Senator -- his credentials allow him to say whatever he wants to on this issue with a degree of knowledge.
It was Teddy Roosevelt who identified the challenge of college football, and through his attempt to get Harvard and Yale and a couple of other universities to address the risk, the NCAA was created.
The amazing thing to Senator Alexander and myself is that we have this governing body today that by all practical observations has done a great job of regulating college sports. It is the reason we have fabulous playoffs. It is the reason we have integrity in the scholarship system. But, more importantly, it is the reason we have top-quality athletes who go into these schools, where less than 1 percent become pros. Ninety-nine percent of them are reliant on a great education for a fabulous outcome in life. To do anything that changes the balance of what they have been able to create is ludicrous and I think what troubles me, and I think it troubles Senator Alexander.
These are not some misguided college football players. This is the United Steelworkers. Let me say that again because I do not think people understand it. This is the United Steelworkers who have put up the money so that these players from Northwestern would go to the NLRB and say: We want to unionize at Northwestern University. Well, on the face of it, it creates a great inequity between public and private schools, where we have a governing body that tries to make this process as equitable as it can.
But let me make this point: If you want to drive the rest of the schools out of major sports, then do this. Only 10 percent of our Nation's athletic programs make money. That means 90 percent of them lose in the athletic department. But for the quality of life of all students, not just athletes, they continue and their alumni continue to subsidize it.
I agree with my good friend from Tennessee. This would be a huge mistake, and it is time for those players at Northwestern to think about more than those individuals who have fronted them the money to bring this case.
Alexander: The question should be obvious: What does a student at Wake Forest or Vanderbilt or -- and we are using the private universities, again, because those are the only ones affected by this decision for now -- but if you are at Vanderbilt University, according to the vice chancellor, the total scholarship could be nearly $60,000. That is the value each year of your athletic scholarship. Times four -- so you are up to one-quarter of a million dollars.
The College Board says -- roughly estimates -- that a college degree adds $1 million to your earnings during a lifetime.
So the idea that student athletes do not get anything in return for their playing a sport is financially wrong. And just speaking as one individual who had the privilege to participate for two years as a student athlete without getting anything -- I had scholarships, but they were not athletic scholarships -- the discipline, the memories, the competition, the chance to be in the Southeastern Conference Tournament -- that is very important to me.
It was then, just as athletics always is. It is a rare privilege to participate in intercollegiate athletics.
The presidents have looked at the problems of intercollegiate athletics. And there are some. But people forget -- and I know the Senator from North Carolina is aware of this. But let's say you are at Vanderbilt and you have a $58,000 scholarship -- tuition, room and board – but your total costs are over $60,000 and let's say you come from a poor family that has no money and you are put in the embarrassing position of not having walking-around money, money to go out and get a hamburger, or whatever you want to do.
Forty percent of student athletes in America also have a Pell grant similar to 40 percent of all students in America have a Pell grant, and the Pell grant can be, on average, $3,600. So that is $300 a month that could be added.
Now, perhaps there are other issues that ought to be addressed. But I wonder if the Senator from North Carolina would speak more about one thing he talked about. I imagine Florida State, the University of Tennessee, Stanford, maybe Wake Forest -- they will all be fine with a more expensive athletic program. But what is going to happen to the smaller schools? What is going to happen to the minor sports? What is going to happen to the title IX women's sports if for some reason a union forces universities to have a much more expensive athletic program for a few sports?
Burr: Well, let me say to my good friend from Tennessee, I will quote the words of Wake Forest President Nathan Hatch, a former provost at Notre Dame, in an editorial he wrote in the Wall Street Journal just this week.
To call student-athletes employees is an affront to those players who are taking full advantage of the opportunity to get an education. Do we really want to signal to society and high-school students that making money is the reason to come play a sport in college, as opposed to getting an education that will provide a lifetime benefit?
President Patrick Harker, president of the University of Delaware, in the same article said:
Turning student athletes into salaried employees would endanger the existence of varsity sports on many college campuses. Only about 10 percent of Division I college sports programs turn a profit, and most of them, like our $28 million athletic program at the University of Delaware, lose money. Changing scholarship dollars into salary would almost certainly increase the amount schools have to spend on sports, since earnings are taxed and scholarships are not. In order just to match the value of a scholarship, the university would have to spend more.
At Wake Forest, let me say, today a scholarship is worth $45,600 in tuition in fees, $15,152 in room and board, $1,100 in books. I will say to my good friend from Tennessee, I am not sure if there is still $15 of laundry money a month that exists under a scholarship. That is what it was when I was there. I dare say I hope it is more than that today because I do not think you can do laundry for $15 a month.
I wonder if I can ask the Senator to reflect a little bit on some of the practical consequences of a student athlete suddenly finding himself thought of as an employee of the university. I wonder, for example, would the employee of the university, the quarterback or whatever position he plays, have to pay taxes on his income? I would think so.
I was thinking about the recent changes in Federal labor law that allow for micro-unions. Almost any little group can petition the National Labor Relations Board, under the Obama administration's views, to become a union. I wonder if quarterbacks would become a micro-union. They would say: We are more important. Look at the NFL. They get paid a lot more. We want a bigger scholarship than others.
I wondered about five-star recruits. Let's say there is a terrific defensive back -- as I am sure Senator Burr was when he was in high school. He had five stars from all the recruiting services. Would the private schools who are unionized go out and compete to see who could pay the highest compensation to the five-star recruits, a lot less to the walk-on, maybe less for a three-star. What are the practical consequences of a student athlete suddenly finding himself defined as an employee of the university under the National Labor Relations Act?
Burr: Let me say to my good friend, as one who remembers August practices in the South -- hottest time of the year, three practices a day -- the first thing I would bargain out for all players is that I would have to get my ankles taped at 4:30 in the morning, that I would have to go all day and most of the night, and that I could not take that tape off until 8:30 after three practices.
I would negotiate away the smell of dead grass in August, a memory every college football player, as a matter of fact every football player, has of that dead grass in summer practice in hot weather.
I plead with those who play today: Do you truly believe you can form a team if in fact you have individuals who negotiate individual things for themselves? If quarterbacks negotiate they cannot be hit, how good is the club? But where is the team? If individuals find that it is advantageous to them because they are stars and they can negotiate it, where have we lost the sense of team sports?
The Senator from Tennessee mentioned this to begin with: College sports is a lot about the experience. It builds character. It builds integrity. It builds drive. It builds resilience. It is not the only thing in life that does it, but to me, for many individuals, for many young men and women, this is the most effective way for them to become leaders. I might say it is very much the style of our training in the military. As we raise those young officers, they go through a very regimented training.
Imagine what it would be like if we allowed the military to collectively bargain. Let me tell you, none of us would feel safe at night because we don't know exactly know what they have gone through. Today we feel safe because we know they have all gone through the same thing.
I guess the message -- I particularly enjoyed hearing the Senator from North Carolina. The message today is directed at two groups. One is to the NCAA, which is to say, do not think that the attitude of one Regional Director of the National Labor Relations Board reflects the view of the U.S. Government. It does not. The other is to the student athletes. Think about the value of the opportunity you have.
Here are two former student athletes of varying talents who benefited enormously from that. There are many others who would say the same thing. The university does not owe us anything. We owe the university -- at least that is the way I feel about it -- for the privilege of competing, for the privilege of attending. If I had a scholarship, that would have been even better -- just the privilege of participating.
To the NCAA, the members of the NCAA have talked about issues such as should we provide more expense money for athletes. I mentioned earlier that 40 percent of them have Pell grants which can go up to $5,600 a year in addition to their $55,000 or $60,000 of football scholarships. So think about that. That was considered by the NCAA and voted down because the small schools said: It will hurt us. Women's programs said: We will have to drop women's programs.
So this is more complicated than it would seem at first. What about health care? Of course, a student athlete can be covered by his parents' health care insurance. Under the Affordable Care Act, I am sure many on the other side would be quick to say, they would always be able to be insured for any sort of pre-existing condition, but these are issues that can be properly looked at by the NCAA.
Unionization, in my opinion, would destroy intercollegiate athletics as we know it. I think we should look back to the opinion of the Knight Commission, headed by Bill Friday of North Carolina and Ted Hesburgh of Notre Dame, and reaffirm that the student athlete is not a professional, not a hired hand. He or she is a student. One percent of the athletes in this country -- there may be problems to solve, but the universities and the NCAA can address those problems. Unionization is not the way to do it.
Burr: I just wanted to address one last thing; that is, the claim that this case was all about health care. The Senator from Tennessee has pointed out as well the options that we have today. But let me speak from a firsthand experience: a college athlete, four operations -- two knees, an elbow, a finger. Probably the only record I hold at Wake Forest is the total number of inches of scars on my body. Because of modern medicine, that record will not be broken because they do not do surgery that way anymore.
But I think it is best summed up by our current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, when he said this:
When sports are done right, when priorities are in order, there is no better place to teach invaluable life lessons than on a playing field or court....Discipline, selflessness, resilience, passion, courage, those are all on display in the NCAA.
Why would we do anything to risk that? Not only do I believe this is risky, I think just a consideration of it is enough to make us -- or should make us reject this quickly, not embrace it. I thank my colleague from Tennessee.
Alexander: I thank my colleague from North Carolina. I thank the Senator from Iowa for his courtesy in allowing us to go ahead.
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