A bill proposed in the Maryland General Assembly this week would give athletes in the state the ability to collectively bargain for rights and potentially unionize.
The bill is sponsored by Brooke Lierman (D-Baltimore) and comes in the aftermath of the school’s handling of Jordan McNair’s heatstroke. The offensive lineman died two weeks after he collapsed while doing a conditioning workout in May. An investigation revealed that McNair was not treated properly in the immediate aftermath of his collapse.
“There’s an inherently unequal playing field between student-athletes and the universities that they go to,” Lierman said. “There’s so much money involved, which has made it much more weighted against students who are coming to school on scholarships and playing, especially the revenue-producing sports. There needs to be a conversation and probably legislation to correct the imbalance of power that exists right now.”
The bill would cover all of the universities in Maryland that field athletic teams and highlights four primary areas that would be open to collective bargaining: scholarship terms, insurance benefits, use of an athlete’s image or likeness and the establishment of an independent advocate to work on behalf of athletes. The proposal challenges the NCAA’s lucrative and time-honored model of amateurism that governs college athletics.
Maryland, which declined comment on the bill to the Post, is a Big Ten school. The conference instituted a rule in 2014 that required all member schools to offer athletes four-year scholarships. The Big Ten was the first major conference to mandate four-year scholarships.
Per NCAA rules, players are barred from profiting off their own likenesses. Name and image rights were a central issue of the O’Bannon suit against the NCAA. In 2016, EA Sports reached a $60 million settlement regarding the O’Bannon suit and its use of images modeled after real-life players in its NCAA football series.
Players have tried to unionize previously
Before we get too far, it’s worth noting the Maryland bill has a very low chance of becoming law. Not only would it have to pass the state legislature, the NCAA would likely challenge it in court after it became law.
Northwestern voted on forming a union in 2014. To form a union, players have to be deemed employees of a school. And the NCAA has long contended that athletes are not school employees. In 2014, the National Labor Relations Board said it wouldn’t uphold a ruling that players were school employees; the union votes were not tallied.
In 2017, the NLRB’s counsel determined that players at private schools like Northwestern were employees of their universities. However, that memo filed by the NLRB’s counsel had no authority in the public realm.
Washington bill challenges endorsement ban
The bill in the Maryland General Assembly is at least the second state-level bill challenging the NCAA’s rules in 2019. A bill pre-filed in the Washington legislature in January would allow athletes in the state to accept endorsement money and profit from their likeness. Under the bill’s terms, the state could file a consumer protection claim on behalf of a player if he or she chose to accept endorsement money.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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