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Michigan Athletes Speak Out on Law Banning Unions

Not only did Michigan republicans ban college athlete unions, they did it without talking to any college athletes.
February 20, 2015, 12:50pm
Photo via University of Michigan, licensed under Flickr Creative Commons

In late January, I wrote about the state of Michigan passing a law that bans college athletes from unionizing, despite there being absolutely no current threat of athlete unionization at any of the state's public universities.

Government typically moves pretty slowly, but the bill passed through the legislature and was signed by Governor Rick Snyder in less than a month. Michigan Republicans championed it as a model for how good legislation can be passed effectively.

Read More: Why Won't Republicans Talk about the Anti-College Athlete Union Bill they Passed?

The only problem? Legislators forgot to actually ask the athletes for their thoughts—and the athletes aren't too happy about that.

"We, before and now, aren't interested in unionizing," said University of Michigan softball player Becca Garfinkel, who is the vice president of National Collegiate Athletic Association Reform on the school's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC). "But it's disappointing that this type of avenue would be removed without any consideration on our part."


Garfinkel initially reached out to me after my first article was published, attempting to learn about the legislative process and what actually had happened in the Michigan state house. Athletes from the SAAC at Michigan—one of the state's two flagship public universities—were never called in to discuss the ban with lawmakers, nor were they even told that unionization was being debated.

"The very first time that we found out, I was approached by the Michigan Daily," said Cooper Charlton, a lacrosse player and SAAC President. "And to be completely candid, we didn't even know it was happening."

Fall in line. Image via Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

This is part of a troubling side of college athletics, in which athletes are not allowed to be in charge of their own circumstances and fates. When Northwestern University football players attempted to unionize last year, football coach Pat Fitzgerald deemed it a breach of "trust." The NCAA has spent millions of dollars, both on Congressional lobbying and court costs, to keep power out of the hands of athletes.

Former Navy athletic director Jack Lengyel once summed up that school of thought: "You can't have the animals running the zoo in a college education."

That way of thinking seems to have motivated the legislature's action, and those who voted to pass the bill don't seem to have any interest in discussing its merits with those who oppose it, or how it was passed. Of the eight legislators and political strategists I contacted about the law, only one responded—the bill's sponsor, Republican state representative Al Pscholka.


He yelled at me and hung up.

Michigan's SAAC members also tried to get answers, and also came up empty. They emailed Gov. Snyder's office and asked for clarification about why they were not contacted before he signed the bill into law. As a good-faith gesture, they also invited him to their charity fundraiser. They received an email back from his secretary stating that he could not make the fundraiser, with no mention of the new law.

"The common theme here is any time that a student-athlete's well-being or future is in question or in the discussion … we feel, not that we deserve, but it's the right thing to do to include us in that," Charlton said.

What's more curious about the lack of answers from legislators is that the Michigan athletes' approach has been anything but combative. Garfinkel said that she is very encouraged by the NCAA's efforts to include athletes in more of their policy-making decisions under the new autonomy structure.

Charlton also noted that he does not want this to be a discussion about the merits of unionization or about partisan party lines. In no way is Michigan's SAAC a union, or pay-for-play advocacy group that could give lawmakers political headaches. They're simply a group of students who want to be included in the ongoing discussion about their legal and economic rights, and not have decisions made for them without at least being consulted first.

Is that really too much to ask?

"We don't think they have all the information they need," Charlton said.