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Congress Tackles Unions in College Football

A congressional hearing on unionization in college football followed a familiar playbook -- Republican vs. Democrat.

The debate over student athlete unionization moved from the football field to the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday, and it largely followed a familiar playbook: Republican vs. Democrat.

In a hearing before the House Education and Workforce Committee -- entitled “Big Labor on College Campuses: Examining the Consequences of Unionizing Student Athletes -- Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., said he was concerned about unionization’s impact on college sports.“If management and union are at an impasse, would players go on strike? Would student athletes on strike attend class?” he asked in his opening statement.

By contrast, George Miller, D-Calif., the senior Democrat on the committee, argued that college athletes do fall into the jurisdiction of unions. “The big business empire of college sports is doing very well. Its revenues are up 32 percent in the last six years, and many universities are hiking tuition and fees, turning to under-paid, over-stretched adjunct faculty and cutting student services,” he said. “In the end, this is a classic labor dispute.”

The hearing came after the National Labor Relations Board’s March ruling that Northwestern University’s football players are university employees and allowed to unionize. In April, the football players voted, but the results have been impounded until the NLRB hears an appeal to its March ruling.

This all comes after a bout of bad press for the NCAA and its relations with student athletes. Over the past year there have been rising concerns for the overall well-being of players. There has been a recent discussion on the impact of sports concussions, and University of Connecticut point guard Shabazz Napier created a firestorm during the NCAA Basketball Tournament when he stated there are nights he goes to bed “starving” because of meal plan restrictions placed on players.

Ken Starr, the president of Baylor University, testified that calling student athletes employees of the university takes focus away from the academic aspect. “During the prior academic year, 86 percent of senior student-athletes at Baylor received their undergraduate degrees,” he said. “Student athletes at Baylor are first and foremost students of the University,” he went on to say.

But economist Andy Schwarz argued in favor of unionization at the hearing. “College athletes undertake the rigorous twin tasks of being a full-time student and also being a full-time athlete, and I do not envision that either a free market or a union solution to the current NCAA collusion will likely change that -- being great at something requires a tremendous investment of time, and time is a scarce commodity,” he said.

“What a market or union outcome would do is provide athletes with a voice in determining how best to make that trade off.”