Northwestern athletes petition to start official college athlete labor union

A group of football players at Northwestern University officially filed a petition Tuesday with the National Labor Relations Board requesting official rights and recognition as a labor union.

If the petition is accepted, the newly-formed College Athlete Players Association (CAPA) would represent football players at FBS schools and Division I basketball players with one caveat – only athletes at private schools would be affected, as CAPA is petitioning under the National Labor Relations Act which only applies to private schools. Public Universities fall under the jurisdiction of state laws rather than the federal labor act.

It is fully possible and perhaps likely, though, that if the CAPA model is accepted and shows success, public school athletes and competitors in other non-football and basketball sports might start taking steps of their own to unionize or broaden CAPA’s membership.

Regardless, the potential formation of a labor union for college athletes would be a huge change with the potential to drastically alter the landscape of college athletics in the coming years. Included private school athletes would be classified as university employees in addition to student-athletes, and would have the option to join CAPA.

One of CAPA’s main goals is to gain collective bargaining rights in order to get better medical coverage and protection for student-athletes, according to coverage of the petition by USA Today.

The NCAA fired back its own statement shortly after CAPA’s press conference announcing the petition. As expected, the NCAA expressed disagreement with the assertion that college athletes could be classifed as employees under the National Labor Relations Act and said it was “confident the National Labor Relations Board will find in our favor, as there is no right to organize student-athletes.” The NCAA also said the move to ‘professionalize’ college athletes undermined the ultimate purpose of college, an education.

There’s much more comprehensive and in-depth coverage of the unionization ramifications and justifications in other media outlets (if you’re looking for further analysis, check out this great ESPN Outside The Lines coverage to start), but the specific effects on swimming as an NCAA institution are complex and hard to predict.

On the one hand, this move has the obvious potential to improve the lives of all student-athletes, swimmers and divers included. Better medical care for athletes and better protection for injured or ill athletes is a noble goal. There’s also been rumblings for some time about helping out athletes financially on top of scholarships: think stipends or pseudo-salaries for athletes, especially ones making untold amounts of money for their schools in ticket sales and TV contracts.

The flip side, though, is that often those pay-for-play models (like the high-profile Sports Illustrated model of November 2011) require cutting Olympic sports like swimming to come up with money to pay athletes in the remaining revenue-producing sports like football and basketball. It’s pretty likely a labor union would leverage the NCAA to provide more for student-athletes. But resources aren’t unlimited, and something’s got to give. It’s hard to predict where it would come from at this point, but Olympic sports like swimming and diving are certainly candidates.

At this very early stage in the process, predicting how a college athlete labor union would affect swimming is more of a shot in the dark than anything. But it is clear that this is an issue to keep close tabs on moving forward, as it has the potential to drastically change the way big-time NCAA sports operate.


  1. Steve Nolan says:

    They wouldn’t have to cut Olympic sports – just reallocate some of the obscene money that goes into building lavish facilities and coaches salaries and divert some to football/basketball players.

    Odds of that happening aren’t great, though.

    • Braden Keith Braden Keith says:

      Steve Nolan – I think the counterargument that the schools will make is that those “obscene facilities” are helping football and basketball players go pro and advance their “careers” as they would now be defined. Then it becomes “job training,” and takes on a new context within this new conversation of athletes as employees.

    • Phil says:

      Most of those large salaries and facilities upgrades are from booster donation, I believe. No way they’re reallocating those funds.

      • Steve Nolan says:

        And why are those boosters making those donations? (Texas A&M didn’t raise all this money because of some sophomore chemist’s awesome lab report.)

        Hell, let the boosters give money directly to players. That’s one way to get the money to the proper people.

  2. David Berkoff says:

    I have always felt that it is somewhat unfair for a university/NCAA to profit off of athletes yet not share in that income. I like the idea of a union but worry that ethics, doping, and personal conduct standards take a dive (aka major league baseball, NFL, NBA) when the players union dictates those issues.

    Some ideas: (1) NCAA or university sets rules with student union on what a student-athlete can make and that income potential is negotiated during recruiting/signing. (2) The funds earned undr the contract CANNOT be touched unless or until the student athlete GRADUATES–with a five year time limit. (3) If the student athlete “goes pro” or fails to graduate in five years, they forfeit the money in the trust fund and it goes back to the university . Obviously, the devil is in the details but the idea balances academics and graduation with the right to make money in an activity in which the student excels.

    • Braden Keith Braden Keith says:

      David – very interesting idea you’ve proposed. I’m still thinking through it, but on the surface, I quite like it.

      So under this scenario, athletes can make their own deals for their money, it sounds like you’re proposing?

      • theroboticrichardsimmons says:

        I think there’s a lot of room between “Schools should pay their athletes as employees” and “Athletes should have the right to monetize their athletic career.” If a school wants to justify its $30-$50k per year in scholarship money as “fair” compensation to play football for them, I’m largely fine with that. However, I am not fine with the NCAA, and complicit schools (which are all of them) preventing athletes from earning outside income from their sport.

        For many of these athletes, their college year are among their most marketable. And, if we’ve seen anything from the so-called “scandals” of athletes accepting money it’s that there’s a big suppressed market for them. For some elite athletes (a la Missy Franklin, et. al) this means very real national and internal sponsorship and prize money that they are forced to forgo to retain amateur status. For others, this means passing up on rather small-scale opportunities, such as becoming a sponsor for a local car dealership or to do local sports clinics for the community.

        At the end of the day, the NCAA invented the concept of the students-athlete to enforce a concept of amateurism that undermine their basic rights as individuals with valuable assets in a market economy. From their perspective, they have every incentive to preserve the status quo and thus minimizing their liability (hello, workplace injury lawsuits) while maximizing their profit margin (hello, market-corrected labor costs). I think it’s about damn time that athletes recognize their collective value and take steps forward to establish their basic rights. If they truly collect under a union, they could use the threat of strike or other collective action to as leverage against the NCAA.

        Closing thought: could you imagine how quickly the NCAA would come to the negotiating table if basketball players threatened to boycott the Sweet 16?

    • Steve Nolan says:

      Wait, why would a union cause for a rise in doping or poor conduct? Athletes assume they’re protected or something? Professional sport unions are kind of rolling over on most of that stuff, from what I’ve seen.

      And there should be no limit on what athletes can make. (Just as there shouldn’t be salary caps in professional sports. Or drafts, for that matter.) You wanna pay an 18 year old LeBron James $100,000,000 a year to play for your college basketball team? That’s your call.

      Tying these changes to education is also a hell of a mistake. If you’re going to make widespread changes to the system, might as well just detach it from schools altogether. Because what’s the point? Just make them employees. If they want to go to class while they’re there, sure. If not, that’s their choice.

      • mcgillrocks says:

        No salary cap or draft? That’s honestly what keeps pro sports functioning.

        No salary cap at all would mean that small market teams can’t compete in the same way. Just look at the Baseball and the Yankees: they almost always have a winning season and have 27 championships. The Pirates have 1/5 the budget of the Yanks and have had decades of losing.

        It might be good for a few superstars cashing out but in the long run it ruins leagues. The USFL looked like it could seriously threaten the NFL before owners started flouting the cap. Then there was a spending war, teams went under and the league fell apart.

        If I was a player I’d prefer a $10 million contract in a stable league for 10 years to a $50 million contract that might not even be around next year.

        • Steve Nolan says:

          You might think it helps, but it doesn’t. (Also, your cited teams don’t really help you, either – the Yankees didn’t make the playoffs last year, Pirates did. Sure, blip, but 27 titles is over a hell of a long time.) Small market baseball teams could compete by scouting the draft and signing more international players – but recent changes to baseball’s collective bargaining agreement squashed that. That consolidates more power to the haves, but it wasn’t very widely reported on.

          Why a “free market” isn’t allowed in professional sports is beyond me. It punishes the players more than anything. (Think anyone’s thrilled to get drafted to play for the Buffalo Bills? Hell naw.)

          College sports don’t have a salary cap (just a roster cap) and that doesn’t hamper turnover.

          Caps help owners and I’m always gonna side w/ labor.

          • mcgillrocks says:

            Since (and including 2000) the Yankees have won 10 East Divisional Titles and gone to the World Series 4 times. That is consistent dominance. The Boston Red Sox (4th in 2013 payroll) have won 3 world series in that span. The Houston Astros had the lowest payroll in 2013 and they lost the most games in years (since 2004).

            The USFL’s greatest moment was initially considered to be signing Herschel Walker. It’s now considered to be it’s downfall. After deviating from the “Dixon Plan” the league went under. They could not keep up revenue to match spending.

            As for your question, “who would get excited when they get drafted by the Bills?” I feel like that proves my point. No one would and if there wasn’t a cap and draft no one would want to play for the Bills anyway and the team would go under. The Jaguars are hard enough to keep competitive WITH a cap. I personally prefer a league with parity and excitement.

          • Steve Nolan says:

            Yeah, but spending still isn’t and never will be equal. So might as well just a) let teams spend whatever they want and b) help the players get as much money as possible. Kobe knows what’s up.

            And the USFL was a fledgling league just trying to get its footing – do you really think any of the major professional sports leagues are in danger of going under any time soon? They have lots. And lots. Of money. And players should be able to get as much of it as owners are willing to pay them. I’m not saying giving out billion-dollar contracts are shrewd business moves – quite the opposite – but they should be able to exist.

            Always side with the little guy. You’re rooting for Wal Mart right now, basically.

  3. Neptune2029 says:

    Unions cost money which comes from dues that members would have to pay.

  4. Billy says:

    This idea will never get off the ground. No one is putting a gun to the heads of the players and making them play. A five year full ride at Northwestern is worth approximently $300,000.00.

    They can always quit the team and pay for their own education like regular students.

    • Steve Nolan says:

      Yeah, no one’s forcing them to play. These players should just give up on a marketable skill they have, a skill that literally puts them in the top 1% of their high school peers in something that draws in billions of dollars. Yes. They should stop doing that thing. That is the best solution for everyone involved..

      Also, your employer will now only pay you in cashews. Those cashews have the same value as the money they were paying you previously, but now it’s up to you to make something of them. It matters little whether you want the cashews or not, that’s the deal. It’s your privilege to receive these cashews. I hope you make the most of them.

      • Billy says:

        If you think that college athletes are going to get full rides and get paid to play their respective sport, you are dreaming.

        They are students, not employees. If they are good enough to play professionally and only about 1% are, they can go pro after college or leave school early.

        Personally, I don’t have a problem with fans and/or alums giving them money under the table if they want to and I’m sure some footballers and basketballers are getting payments on some campuses as we speak.

        • Steve Nolan says:

          I can’t think of a good reason football and basketball players shouldn’t be paid. They’re much more employees than students, let’s stop kidding ourselves. (Remember – “student-athlete” is a term coined to avoid paying workers comp benefits.) Swimmers won’t ever get paid, I’m not advocating for that. But if swimmers earned their schools b-b-billions of dollars? They should probably get some of that money.

          And I agree, definitely don’t need to get scholarships and get paid – just pay them what they’re worth. Which, for a large number of them, is a hell of a lot more than what that tuition bill says.

          • Billy says:


            Not all athletic departments are rolling in money and more than a few have deficits, some of which are a lot larger than you think.

            Out of curiosity, how much do you think football and basketball players should be paid?

            You are opening a huge can of worms because all the others would want to get paid and there would be huge lawsuits, especially from the women’s side. The “manhater” segment of female sports world would go ballistic.

            It would be a gigantic mess, trust me on that one.

          • Steve Nolan says:

            Sure, maybe individual athletic departments aren’t rolling in dough (creative accounting can do that for a lot of them) but the NCAA as a whole definitely is. Those schools won’t be able to pay their players very much.

            I think they should get paid whatever people are willing to pay them. For your Heisman candidates, that very well may be millions of dollars. And hell, even for big-name swimmers – think Missy Franklin might’ve gotten some lucrative offers from schools?

            And sure, the others would want to get paid – but who cares? If no one’s willing to pay for you skills you don’t get paid. (Not all professional athletes make the same amount of money.) The minimum athlete wage can be a scholarship, or w/e.

  5. David Berkoff says:

    I agree that going to college is and should continue to be for the purpose of receiving and education. The problem has become that universities and the NCAA have made a lot of money on the backs of the athletes. I don’t like the idea of college athletics becoming a semipro free for all but I do think there are creative ways to provide delayed compensation to the athletes if they graduate (and penalize them for legal/ethical infractions). The NCAA and the athlete unions could bargain for a delayed compensation program which encourages graduation and ethical behavior and penalizes student who don’t behave or fail to graduate. Lots of room for new ideas.

    • Steve Nolan says:

      So because you think it’s icky that college sports would become a “semipro free for all” you want to continue tying it to academics? MANY OF THESE ATHLETES ARE NOT STUDENTS. Seriously, click me.

      If you’re willing and able to get an education while you’re at a school, go for it. But to continue making it a requirement just because you think it’s a cute little ideal to strive for? Barf. (Especially that “good behavior” thing you keep bringing up.)

  6. David Berkoff says:

    I also think a fair way of doing it would be that the university pools all of the money and rewards student athletes for grades and performance and rewards teams for overall GPA and graduations rates. So as an example if 1 million dollars in profits was placed into a particular class’ graduating trust fund, it wold be paid out after year five to all athletes who graduate and a bonus would go to the teams with the highest graduation ate and/or cumulative GPA. The compromise is that the athletes would earn the money as a group through athletic excellence and split the money equally through academic performance.

    • ole 99 says:

      I like the theory of what you are proposing, but not the practicality. There is already enough academic engineering going on in college athletics. If you create an incentive program designed around grades and graduation, you are going to see a huge increase in academic fraud.

  7. Billy says:


    Do you think that Harvard made million$ off tne backs of their athletes like you? Furthermore, do you think that the admins there would be open to paying their athletes?

    I think that a cow will jump over the moon before that happens.

    The best way to handle this is let the students work out of season if they want to and/or let the alums and boosters be allowed to give the athletes financial gifts.

    Any other idea is just unworkable. Many athletic departments do not have millions of dollars in profits. Some are just scraping by.

    It would be the end of collegiate athletics as we know it. Bad idea all around.

    • Steve Nolan says:

      If athletic departments are already operating at a loss, why wouldn’t they have cut sports already?

      It’s not a prerequisite that these schools give every football player a $5 million contract. They’re already “paying” them $50k+ in scholarship money, as many like to point out.

      The money’ll work itself out.

  8. shinjii says:

    I have a legitimate tax question for anyone who might know- if these kids are considered employees, than wouldn’t their scholarship be considered taxable income? let’s say your tuition is 20,000 a year and the university pays that for you, plus any other benefit that you receive from the employer would have to be accounted for and I would assume taxed, plus you are going to add an actual salary on top? I would love to see the face on that 19 old when he gets the tax bill from the IRS– would be an important life lesson though.

    • So Very Opinionated says:

      When you are an employee at a university and classes are included as a perk, they are not taxed.

      And before you ask: yes, I know for sure. I was employed by a university and took classes for free.

  9. JG says:

    Ok I could not resist it .

    In honour of Pete Seeger 1920-2014

    You won’t tackle me , I’m a Union Man!

  10. PurpleKnight says:

    Shinjii, Athletic scholarships are taxed. I believe any portion of an athletic scholarship that covers any amount over tuition & educational fees, such as room & board, is considered “taxable income” by the IRS.

    For most US students though, it’s their parents that get “the bill” due to college attending children are still tax deductions for parents.

    • shinjii says:

      PK- exactly, but as a student athlete you are not considered an employee of that university- once you become a full time employee and member of a union I would think that changes your status in the eyes of the IRS. This could potentially change your status as a dependent as well for your parents. I just don’t see the IRS letting you have it both ways.

      On the bright side, look how many “jobs” would be created

  11. Billy says:

    So what’s next? A top high school athlete hiring an agent to see what school will give him or her the best contract?

    Colleges and universities sitting down with a high school running back and negotiating a four year deal? Maybe the kid will ask for weekly action with hot coeds to be part of the agreement.

    Will the first string QB get paid more than the backups?

    Does the freshman point guard get paid more than the upperclassmen if he or she is a member of the starting five?

    This entire idea is total lunacy.

    • Steve Nolan says:

      …you serious, bro?

      You know you can get a job when you’re like, 15 years old, right? Is that what’s freaking you out, the age of these kids? (Amobi Okoye was drafted into the NFL as a 19 year old, burn him!) If not that, what is it?

      I’d answer all of your questions with a very obvious – yes! (Especially the coed part. Clearly that should be in all contracts.)

      I just have no idea what you’re so scared of.

      • Billy says:

        I’m not scared of a darn thing. Many schools do not have the money to do this. If you think they do, you’re wrong.

        You never answered the question of how much money should they be paid because you did not think this through.

        Paying the men and not the women will result in a ton of lawsuits. If you can’t see this, you need better glasses. Have you ever heard of Title IX?

        Check back with me in a year or three, nothing will have changed.

        I always like to read how someone would spend someone else’s money………

        • Steve Nolan says:

          Alright, then the schools that aren’t making money won’t pay their athletes. I think they have plenty of money to pay them – schools will cut costs elsewhere to find the money. Reasoning that all players cannot be paid because some schools can’t afford it is just bonkers. (Again – think Texas A&M can afford to give Johnny Manziel some of this money?)

          And I did answer that question – “I think they should get paid whatever people are willing to pay them. For your Heisman candidates, that very well may be millions of dollars. And hell, even for big-name swimmers – think Missy Franklin might’ve gotten some lucrative offers from schools?” It seems like you’re stuck on everyone getting paid the same thing? Because I don’t know why that would be a thing.

          Men and women pro basketball players do not make the same amount of money. NCAA men and women basketball players will not make the same amount of money. Title IX just refers to the opportunity to play sports, yes? I don’t think it guarantees equal payment. I’ve obviously read a lot about paying players and I’ve literally never seen that argument before.

          The O’Bannon Lawsuit, this unionizing thing…change is coming eventually. Maybe not in a year, maybe not even in three, but this ridiculously unfair system can’t hold. Because it’s not fair.

          I want money to go to the people that deserve it – the football and basketball players that are generating billions of dollars for entities that aren’t themselves. I have no idea how paying the people that are actually, ya know, doing the work is somehow crazy.

  12. Billy says:

    What’s your next idea, paying high school athletes that make money for their school?

    Maybe you can pay Little League baseball players who make it to Williamsport for the Little League World Series. ESPN and ABC get very good TV ratings broadcasting the games and sell lots of advertising.

    When the day comes that colleges pay their athletes “millions”, I’ll eat my hat.

    I’m done with this absurd subject.

    • Steve Nolan says:

      My arguments do not currently extend to high school athletes. They relate to college athletes. But, things change. If high school athletics begin to look like the NCAA I will gladly reevaluate my views on the subject. A hundred years ago, I most likely would not have been in favor of paying collegiate athletes. Circumstances change.

      A lot of very smart people agree with me on this. (Ex. 1, Ex. 2, Ex. 3, umpteen more. Hell, that last article is written by a civil right’s historian who said the NCAA has “an unmistakable whiff of the plantation.” He has put a lot more thought into his arguments than you in yours, trust me.)

      It’s not absurd, it’s what’s fair.

  13. title IX says:

    Steve – Title IX is about equal pay. The NBA and other pro sports don’t apply to Title IX because they do not receive federal funding, so until athletic departments can offset what the federal government gives the ENTIRE university then your pay-for-play plan will never work. That is the biggest thing people don’t discuss when they discuss paying players. If everyone does not get paid the same (total payment to women and total payment to men) then it will never hold up with the federal government.

    If this is what people really want, then they should just create professional college sports associations that have no affiliation with universities. That would be the only way to pay the players without the requirements that a university faces as far as Title IX.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Connect with Facebook

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson profile

Jared Anderson just can’t stay away from the pool. A competitive career sixteen years and running wasn’t enough for this native Minnesotan, who continues to get his daily chlorine fix. A lifelong lover of writing, Jared now combines the two passions as Senior Reporter for SwimSwam.com, covering swimming at every level. Read More »