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.