U.S. House hears witnesses opposed to union for college athletes

Thu May 8, 2014 6:40pm EDT
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By Amanda Becker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The debate over whether college athletes have the right to unionize moved to the U.S. Congress on Thursday, with witnesses that included Baylor University President Ken Starr voicing opposition.

"It seems to be exactly the wrong way to go," Starr told the Education and the Workforce Committee in the Republican-led House of Representatives, referring to the unionization of college athletes.

But the panel's top Democrat, George Miller of California, said college athletes were "asking smart questions" about why they have been reduced to being "commodities" within the multi-billion dollar "empire" controlled by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the governing body for major college sports.

The hearing was prompted by a U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regional director's decision in March that Northwestern University's scholarship football players could vote on joining a union.

The Northwestern players voted in April, although the results might not be known for months. The ballots are impounded while the NLRB board in Washington reviews the regional director's finding that the student athletes are school employees who have the right to pursue union representation. [ID:nL2N0NH1L6]

Starr, a former federal judge and prosecutor well known for investigating the Monica Lewinsky scandal during Bill Clinton's presidency, said the NLRB finding could cause uncertainty and instability across higher education.

There could be disparities between teammates depending on the size and scope of the bargaining units approved to hold elections by the NLRB, said Starr, whose private Christian university is located in Waco, Texas.

"The unit that was recognized by the regional director doesn't include the entire football team, so if you're a walk-on (non-scholarship player), the representative is not going to be representing you, you're going to be outside the unit. That's a fundamental issue," Starr said.   Continued...

The exterior of Ryan Field, home field for the Northwestern University football team, is seen while athletes voted to determine if they want to form a union in Evanston, Illinois, April 25, 2014.  REUTERS/Jim Young