Citing the death of University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair and the victims of Larry Nassar's abuse at Michigan State, a Maryland lawmaker has proposed legislation to allow collegiate student-athletes in her state to unionize.
"There's an inherently unequal playing field between student-athletes and the universities that they go to," Maryland delegate Brooke Lierman said, as reported in today's The Washington Post. "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, which has 18 cosponsors, 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 University of Maryland admitted that its medical personnel failed to diagnose or treat McNair properly before his June death, and the University System of Maryland Board of Regents sparked outrage when it later recommended retaining coach DJ Durkin.
"It's important that we start a serious conversation about how Maryland's college athletes are being treated, and I'm glad we can start that conversation this year," Lierman said. "I'm only sorry that it took the death of a college student to get us to this place."
Maryland is in the process of implementing a variety of health and safety measures in the wake of McNair’s practice-related death from heatstroke last June. The Post reported Thursday that sophomore Raymond Boone was hospitalized as a precautionary measure after struggling to recover from a run during football practice Tuesday. Boone, who was released Wednesday, stated is was an issue of low blood sugar.
A spokesperson said university officials are reviewing the proposed legislation and that it’s too early to comment. An NCAA spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. Lierman said she has not spoken with anyone from the Maryland athletic department but did consult with the school’s student government when crafting the bill.
The debate predates Lierman's efforts. In 2014, a group of Northwestern University football players sought collective bargaining rights, but were ultimately thwarted by the National Labor Relations Board. Later that year, lawmakers in Michigan took proactive steps to ban student-athlete unions. Ohio lawmakers did likewise. North Carolina, on the other hand, passed a bill in 2017 that established a "Legislative Commission on the Fair Treatment of College Student-Athletes," which was charged with exploring several issues, including health and compensation. The body is expected to issue a report by the end of the month that calls for the creation of a "protection commission" for athletes but stops short of demanding compensation or collective bargaining rights, according to a draft of the report reviewed by the Post.
"I think pressure has been building on universities and on the NCAA over the past decade to do right by our student-athletes," Lierman said, noting that more than 30 college football players have died from exertional heatstroke since 2000. "I’d hope that we have reached a tipping point and we don't have to lose any more young people to make a change."