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Steve Berkowitz, @ByBerkowitz, USA TODAY Sports

Billed as an examination of the consequences of unionizing college athletes, a House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing Thursday involved plenty of that. But the hearing also became a platform for congressional criticism of the NCAA and Division I schools' approach to addressing athletes' concerns that triggered the effort to unionize scholarship football players at Northwestern.

One of the five witnesses, Stanford athletics director Bernard Muir, told the committee that if his school's athletes were allowed to unionize, the school "might opt not to compete at the level we are competing in." And in an interview with USA TODAY Sports after the hearing, he was unequivocal: "If (Stanford's athletes) are deemed employees, we will opt for a different model."

"I just know that from our board of trustees, our president, our provost, the Stanford culture, it just wouldn't be appropriate to deem student-athletes as employees," Muir said. "We would deem that inappropriate, so for that purpose we would have to look at other alternatives."

Stanford associate vice president for university communications Lisa Lapin, who accompanied Muir to the hearing, said in the meantime Stanford President John Hennessy was leading an effort among Pac-12 Conference presidents to craft a joint statement expressing a commitment to addressing a variety of athletes' concerns, though the specifics were being refined.

"I think what has happened -- and it's a very good thing -- is that the issue of student-athlete welfare is now truly a public policy issue," Baylor President Ken Starr, another witness, said after the 2-hour, 15-minute hearing during which more than a dozen committee members spoke or asked questions.

National Labor Relations Board regional director Peter Sung Ohr ruled in March that Northwestern's scholarship football players were employees of the university and he ordered a player vote on whether to form a union.

The NLRB subsequently granted a request by the university for a full-board review of Ohr's decision, but players cast ballots two weeks ago on whether to unionize.

Because of Northwestern's challenge, the ballots were impounded by the NLRB and unlikely to be counted until the full board issues a decision.

"Given the track record of the Obama NLRB, I suspect the board will rubber-stamp the regional director's decision, setting a dangerous precedent," committee chairman John Kline, R-Minn., said in a prepared opening statement that foreshadowed how the tone of questions would be split largely along party lines. Kline also said that while the NCAA "absolutely" could do more "to protect students," allowing college athletes to unionize was "absolutely not" the answer.

The union effort, an array of ongoing lawsuits, two bills pending in the House and a hearing set for next week by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee titled "Promoting the Well-Being and Academic Success of College Athletes" have drawn attention to a variety of athlete issues -- especially for those at schools in elite-level conferences whose revenue have skyrocketed. The concerns include the differential between the value of a scholarship and the actual cost of attending college, long-term health care, the availability of multiyear scholarships and the use of athletes' names and likenesses.

The ongoing saga prompted the committee's top Democrat, California's George Miller, to forcefully say in an off-the-cuff closing statement that seemed addressed at Muir, Starr and college officials nationwide: "The list of grievances these players presented is a list that could have been presented five years ago, 10 years ago. And they haven't been addressed.

"We've been over this and over this and over this. ... You can rail against unionization, but you better address the problem. This is college sports, not the NCAA."

Starr, a veteran of Washington political and judicial circles, was far from taken aback by Miller's comments or those of Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., who characterized certain NCAA regulations as "nickel and dime, Mickey Mouse rules," and said what occurred at Northwestern shows the NCAA "has created a vacuum in terms of athletes being treated fairly."

"The only thing that changes the NCAA is external pressure," Courtney added.

May 9, 2014

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