Baylor University President Ken Starr voiced strong opposition Thursday to a regional National Labor Relations Board ruling that scholarship football players at Northwestern University are technically school employees and thus entitled to collective bargaining rights.
Starr, a former federal judge and prosecutor, said it would be very disruptive if college athletes were allowed to unionize.
Starr, who as an independent prosecutor led a five-year investigation of President Bill Clinton in the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals in the 1990s, testified about the NLRB ruling at a hearing by the House Education and Workforce Committee.
The committee's chairman, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., said allowing college athletes to unionize would set a "dangerous precedent for colleges and universities nationwide."
He said there were problems in college athletics that need to be addressed, including making sure that athletes have good medical coverage, but that allowing them to unionize was the wrong way to go.
The panel's top Democrat, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., voiced support for Northwestern athletes, calling it "a rational decision by these young people. There was no other outlet."
"The nostalgic days where student-athletes really were 'students' first ... are pretty much over for high-level athletic programs," Miller said.
The congressional hearing came in response to the landmark ruling by the Chicago-region director of the NLRB on the status of Northwestern college athletes. Northwestern, located in Evanston, Ill., has appealed the ruling.
If upheld, the unionization movement could easily spread to other campuses and change the landscape of amateur athletics in the U.S.
Northwestern players cast ballots April 25 on whether to unionize. But the labor agency sealed the ballot boxes until the school's appeal plays out.
The panel heard testimony on the multimillion-dollar annual salaries of some major college football coaches.
No one from Northwestern or from the would-be players' union appeared before the panel.
However, Kain Colter, the former Northwestern quarterback who is a leader in the unionization effort, issued a statement praising Miller and other committee members "who stood up for college athletes' rights and exposed unjust NCAA rules. ... They are part of a legacy that has fought to better civil rights for all Americans." Ramogi Huma, president of the fledgling College Athletes Players Association, asserted in the same statement, "We are on the right side of history."
Patrick Eilers, a former safety in the National Football League for the Minnesota Vikings, Washington Redskins, and Chicago Bears, told the panel "the crux of the problem is that student-athletes should be students, first and foremost, as the description suggests. I'm concerned that calling student-athletes 'employees' will make the system more of a business than it already is," he said.
Eilers was a member of the 1988 Notre Dame national championship team.
"I was a student-athlete at Notre Dame. Period. I was not an employee of the university, nor did I want to be one," Eilers said. But when he later played for NFL teams, "I was an employee and I wanted to be."