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Michigan Bans Student Athlete Unions

Athletes at Michigan universities are prohibited from unionizing under a new law signed Tuesday by Gov. Rick Snyder.

The law, hastily introduced and passed by Michigan Republicans during the state legislature’s lame-duck session, requires that all athletes at a school be classified as “students” rather than “employees.” Since only employees can form a union, that option is effectively closed off to Michigan athletes now.

Snyder’s office said the change sends the message that Michigan athletes should focus on academics.

“The bill would ensure that college athletes are students, first and foremost, and should not be treated as employees by their schools,” said Snyder’s office in a statement accompanying his signature. Other supporters have said the law will protect non-athlete students from paying higher tuition rates to finance athlete salaries,

The law only applies to public colleges, as private unionization is overseen by federal law and the National Labor Relations Board rather than state statutes.

The law is designed to prevent an incident like the one unfolding at nearby Northwestern University in Illinois, where football players held a vote on possible unionization that is currently being reviewed by the NLRB. Critics, however, point out that there are no ongoing unionization efforts at any Michigan schools, making the law a solution to a non-problem. Progress Michigan, a liberal advocacy group in the state, has gone further, arguing that athletes deserve the right to unionize if they wish.

“Corporate abuse knows no age,” the group told MichiganLive after the bill passed the legislature two weeks ago. “Universities profit handsomely from student athletes and they deserve the right to collectively bargain if they so choose without interference by the legislature.”

Athlete unionization is a major potential issue in the world of college sports, because it could lead to the collapse of the NCAA’s rules barring players from being paid. Major football and basketball programs, like those at the University of Michigan’s, make millions of dollars every year, but players see none of it. Some argue that famous and valuable players deserve a cut of what they produce for a school, while others argue that paying athletes would lead to the end of the large majority of sports teams and athletic programs that lose money every year.

If Northwestern’s unionization attempt is successful, or if new efforts begin] more states with major programs could see themselves considering similar laws.

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