CHICAGO — Major colleges run their football teams just like those in the NFL, relying on players to generate millions of dollars in revenue, an economist testified Wednesday before a federal agency that will decide whether Northwestern's football players can form the nation's first union for college athletes.
"The difference would be ... the NFL pays their players," Southern Utah University sports economist David Berri told the National Labor Relations Board on the second day of a three-day hearing in Chicago.
The NLRB is deciding whether Wildcats' football players can be categorized under U.S. law as employees, which would give them the right to unionize. The university, the Big Ten Conference and NCAA have all maintained that college players are student-athletes, not employees.
Berri was called to testify on behalf of the newly formed College Athletes Players Association, which is pushing the unionization bid with support from the United Steelworkers. He sought to illustrate how the relationship between Northwestern and its football players was one of employer to employees.
Profit numbers attest to the program being a commercial enterprise, he told the hearing,
Northwestern's football program reported a total profit of $76 million from 2003 to 2012, with revenues of $235 million and costs of $159 million, Berri testified. The numbers were adjusted for inflation for the private school.
Berri conceded he didn't know that maintenance of the Wildcats' stadium was not included in the expense numbers. And he said he also did not know if football profits made up for losses in other, less popular school sports.
Schools with revenue-generating football teams were in the business of entertainment, Berri said. Asked who provided those services, he responded, "Players are the ones you are watching. ... It is players that attract the interest of the fans."
An attorney for Northwestern, Alex Barbour, pressed Berri about whether he was trying to say the school exploits its football players.
"There is an economic definition of the word 'exploitation,'" he responded. "A worker is exploited ... if their economic value is greater than their wages. ... By that definition, they are exploited."
The university and its attorneys have repeatedly said that Northwestern has one of the highest graduation rates for football teams in the country, with around 97 percent of players receiving degrees.
Whether the economist should have been allowed to testify was a point of contention, with Barbour complaining that Berri's analysis was irrelevant to the central issue of whether college football players are employees. A union attorney, Gary Kohlman, said it was vital to identifying the nature of Division I football today.
"It has become a business ... and the only way you can have a business is to have labor," he said.
The hearing officer overseeing the case, Joyce Hofstra, agreed to let Berri speak, saying the hearing was "novel" and she would err on the side of admitting evidence.
Barbour had said during his opening statement that allowing a college athletes' union to collectively bargain would be "a Rube Goldberg contraption that would not work in the real world" and would fundamentally change college sports. Berri, though, pointed to the NFL and its embrace of a union, adding that "did not cause the professional sport to collapse."
Supporters say a union would provide athletes a vehicle to lobby for financial security and improved safety, noting that players are left out of the billions generated through college athletics. They contend scholarships sometimes don't even cover livings expenses for a full year.