Northwestern athletes petition to start official college athlete labor union

  37 Jared Anderson | January 29th, 2014 | College, National, News

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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37 Comments on "Northwestern athletes petition to start official college athlete labor union"

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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… Read more »

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

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.

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

…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.

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
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… Read more »

About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

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, covering swimming at every …

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