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.

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Steve Nolan

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.

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.


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

Steve Nolan

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.

David Berkoff

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… Read more »

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?


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,… Read more »

Steve Nolan

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?… Read more »


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… Read more »

Steve Nolan

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… Read more »


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… Read more »

Steve Nolan

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… Read more »


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

About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson swam for nearly twenty years. Then, Jared Anderson stopped swimming and started writing about swimming. He's not sick of swimming yet. Swimming might be sick of him, though. Jared was a YMCA and high school swimmer in northern Minnesota, and spent his college years swimming breaststroke and occasionally pretending …

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