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

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.

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.

Patrick Eilers, a former football player for the University of Notre Dame who later played for the NFL's Chicago Bears, Washington Redskins and Minnesota Vikings, said changes are needed in college sports, but unionization is not the right way to go.

"I'm concerned that calling student-athletes 'employees' will make the system more of a business than it already is," Eilers said.

Miller said that, in the past four decades, colleges and universities through the NCAA "have perfected the art of monetizing the athletic play of their best football and basketball players and teams.

"They have created nothing less than a big business empire. That empire is consumed and driven by multi-billion dollar exclusive television, radio, and multi-media deals, branding agreements, prime-time sports shows and celebrity coaches with seven-figure salaries," Miller added.

The NCAA oversees sports programs at more than 1,200 U.S. universities, as well as a few in Canada, and sets rules that bar athletes from being compensated for playing collegiate sports.

Witness Andy Schwarz, a consultant who specializes in the economics of antitrust, sports and entertainment, called the NCAA a price-fixing cartel.

"Given the one-sided market power imposed by collusion, it's not surprising that the players have turned to labor law and unionization for a modicum of countervailing bargaining power," Schwarz said.

(Reporting by Amanda Becker; Editing by Will Dunham and Andre Grenon)

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