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North Carolina Union Seeks To Enlist College Athletes

The State Employees Association of North Carolina has invited athletes at the state's 17 public universities to enroll in the union as state employees.

The move follows a National Labor Relations Board ruling in March that athletes at Northwestern University are employees of the school and are therefore entitled to form a union.

As The Associated Press notes:

"The North Carolina union's decision would not require a team vote and is based on an individual athlete's choice on whether to join. It is unclear if the union's invitation would be open to just scholarship athletes, or walk-ons — or whether there are NCAA rules preventing the athletes to be classified as state employees. There is no minimum number of athletes needed to join before SEANC can represent them in negotiations."

The union's decision to open itself up to student-athlete members may have little effect. It's unclear whether students will line up to join, and even if they do, North Carolina bars public employees from engaging in collective bargaining.

"This is largely a symbolic gesture by the union, and any college athletes who would join would also just be engaging in symbolism," says Rick Eckstein, a sports sociologist at Villanova University. "Not that symbolism isn't important, since it could at least reflect a desire by college athletes to think and act as employees."

State lawmakers may not want students to think like employees. A bill that would make it clear student-athletes can't unionize is currently pending in the Ohio Legislature.

"The state would not voluntarily recognize college athletes as 'workers' covered by public employment law," Eckstein says.

Northwestern is a private institution, and the NLRB ruling doesn't translate to public colleges.

"If the union in North Carolina were to say we want football players at North Carolina State or basketball players at East Carolina to unionize and we want to help them, the state legislators could simply say we're not going to permit them to do that," says Eric Combs, who teaches sports law at the University of Cincinnati.

The NCAA bars schools from paying athletes or offering them many benefits beyond scholarships. But just the specter of unionization has already led to a rules change last month regarding food allowances for students.

It's possible, Combs suggests, that private schools such as Northwestern could end up having to bargain with their athletes. Public universities would then be forced into an awkward position between wanting to match any benefits the private schools can offer and NCAA rules that limit what they can do.

In that case, taking symbolic steps such as considering union membership could pay off for students.

"In any other industry, if a set of employees started to unionize and employers didn't want a union, the employer would start offering benefits in hopes of disincentivizing union activity," Combs says.

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.