An economist told a labor board hearing Wednesday that even if Northwestern University’s football team formed a union, it would be unable to negotiate changes in existing NCAA rules that restrict student-athlete’s pay, merchandise sales or ability to create trust funds to cover long-term injuries.

That’s because Northwestern University must abide by NCAA rules to compete within the NCAA, said David Berri, an economics professor at Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah.

However, Berri said he believes athletes should be paid competitive wages, and that such a structure would have no impact on the competitive balance among college sports teams. In fact, the competition is already imbalanced because top schools attract top athletes, and the same schools win championships over and over again, he said.

For football teams’ appearances in the top eight rankings, about 11 schools control 50 percent of those slots, and fewer than 10 schools control more than half of college football championships, Berri said.

“We’d not considered Division I football a competitively balanced sport,” he said.

Berri said he disagrees with the NCAA’s system that caps student-athletes’ compensation across the board.

In no other part of the free market system does the employer dictate such non-negotiable terms, he said.

“That’s not the way a labor market works, except in college sports,” Berri said.

Berri’s research focuses on college football as big business.

Asked whether Northwestern University exploits its football players, Berri said the term “exploits” is used differently by economists than in normal conversation.

The economists’ definition is that exploitation takes place when a worker’s marginal revenue product — worker’s economic value — is greater than the worker’s wage.

“There are going to be [football] players who generate more revenue than their compensation in scholarships,” Berri said.

His testimony revealed that Northwestern University’s football team has generated $235.7 million in revenues from 2003-2012, adjusted for inflation.

The university spent $159.4 million on the football program during the same 10-year period, resulting in a net revenue gain of $76.3 million, adjusted for 2012 dollar figures. Of reported expenses, $6.5 million went annually to player scholarships and stipend payments, and another $2 million to coaches’ yearly salaries.

Meanwhile, an university athletics official testified that football players cannot practice for a game for more than 20 hours a week during the season under NCAA rules, but he acknowledged that players exceed those hours by simply traveling to games.

“No one is forcing him to get on the bus” or even to play if the player doesn’t want to, said Brian Baptiste, the university’s associate athletic director for compliance. “We’re not mandating someone to be a student athlete. You have the ability to withdraw from the program.”

The 20-hour limit, called Countable Athletically Related Activity, or CARA, omits hours in travel, warm-ups, extra practices and other activities that the rules deem voluntary, Baptiste said.

Baptiste’s testimony was intended to show that much of the activity that quarterback Kain Colter had described —of grueling game-focused 11-hour days and 50- to 60-hour weeks — was done voluntarily.

Northwestern argues the players are primarily students, and that the players association fails to meet the standards required of a labor organization.

Baptiste also said the university is generous in the way it provides football players scholarships and need-based aid. For example, he said Northwestern provides its football players four-year scholarships, rather than one-year scholarships that come up for renewal each year.

The university also provided $54,000 in total to football players in the 2011-2012 academic year from a student assistance fund to help those in financial need and for educational expenses such as taking a GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) to get into business school, he said.

The university also occasionally covers players’ medical costs up to one year after they leave school, based on the circumstances, Baptiste said, even though the university doesn’t pay for regular health-insurance coverage while players are in school.