Barta disagrees with Northwestern ruling: College athletes not employees

But Iowa athletics director says ruling could lead to other student welfare initiatives

Published: April 4 2014 | 7:18 am - Updated: 7 April 2014 | 3:11 pm in

University of Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta said he disagrees with a National Labor Relations Board ruling last month that affirmed Northwestern University football players as employees who can unionize and negotiate with the university.

Barta, speaking at Presidential Committee on Athletics meeting on Thursday, said college athletes differ from employees, including for performance evaluations and security with the team.

“You offer someone a scholarship, and say it’s just not working out on the court, in the field, in the pool. Do you say, ‘We are going to pull your employment? We are going to fire you?” Barta said. “It’s not how it works here.”

“I don’t agree student-athletes are employees,” he said.

However, the ruling could signal a tipping point to move forward on several NCAA student-athlete welfare initiatives, he said.

Barta cited issues that have not gained traction, such as cutting athletic time demands, increasing scholarship values, creating an education trust, expanding medical coverage and increasing academic standards as topics he’d like to see discussed.

“Maybe if we had all these already, we wouldn’t have reached this tipping point,” he said referring to the lawsuit.

However, the five largest conferences need autonomy to make some of the decisions, which haven't been supported by smaller, less wealthy conferences, he said.

Bill Hines, an emeritus dean of the law school and chairman of the committee, said after reading the labor board ruling it was hard not to agree the Northwestern players were employees under the law given their rigid schedules and previous court cases on employment.

Hines said the ruling, even if it is upheld, wouldn’t directly affect public university athletic programs, such as University of Iowa or Iowa State University.

Employees at private colleges, such as Northwestern, fall under federal labor rules. Employees at public universities, such as Iowa and Iowa State, are under state labor rules.

Still, if the final ruling on the Northwestern case — Hines suspects it will eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court — is strong, it could influence state labor board thinking, he said.

“Maybe those same kinds of considerations are going to apply to us someday,” Hines said. “Northwestern only applies to us indirectly, but our (labor) board could be thinking about how it handles it and decide to look at the ruling.”

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