Harry Reid: ‘Of course’ NCAA athletes should have right to unionize

CHESTNUT HILL, MA - SEPTEMBER 03: Kain Colter #2 of the Northwestern Wildcats looks to pass against the Boston College Eagles on September 3, 2011 at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.The Northwestern Wildcats defeated the Boston College Eagles 24-17. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) (Elsa/Getty Images)

The ruling by a federal labor official this week that scholarship football players at big-time schools are paid employees who should have the right to unionize was greeted gleefully by many sports columnists and fans, who have long advocated such an approach. Among the celebrants was Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who called Wednesday’s ruling by a National Labor Relations Board regional director “a good break” for the movement, and pledged to help however he can.

“Of course. Of course,” Reid said Thursday, when asked if big-time NCAA scholarship athletes should be able to form unions and collectively bargain with universities. “Of course they should be able to organize. The way these people are treated by the NCAA and the universities themselves is really unpardonable, and I wish them well. I’ll do anything I can to help.”

Wednesday’s ruling by Peter Sung Ohr, as The Post’s Fred Barbash wrote, “does not apply to public universities and may ultimately require a Supreme Court decision for resolution.” And even if the Northwestern players who prompted the decision were given the right to unionize, they could still elect not to. Reid did not argue that big-time college athletes should be paid; just that they should be able to collectively bargain with their schools.

“That’s what unions are all about,” Reid said in a telephone interview. “They should make a decision as to what they want, and work to get what they want. They may not start out with making money.”

Reid’s son, Key, played on national champion men’s soccer teams at the University of Virginia. The senator said “the rules these coaches have to adhere to because of the NCAA are ridiculous, and the rules are set to make athletes fail, not succeed.” And he suggested that the college football players agitating for change were similar to Curt Flood, who helped bring about free agency in Major League Baseball.

“How could you justify a coach getting a multiple-year contract at $5 million a year – or let’s say it’s one of the lesser coaches, a contract at $900,000 a year – a multiple-year contract?” Reid said. “And a player doesn’t have the money to wash his underwear? I just think this is outrageous. The NCAA, of course, for a long, long time has been an organization that only cares about making money. Their interest in athletes is way down the line as to what they’re interested in. I think these great men and women should be able to at least have money to wash their underwear.”

Dan Steinberg writes about all things D.C. sports at the D.C. Sports Bog.

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