A group of football players at Northwestern University has teamed with the United Steelworkers Union and formed a labor union, the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA).  What’s more, the players have filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), at its regional office in Chicago, to have CAPA recognized as the players’ exclusive bargaining representative in negotiations with the players’ “employer.”

Why is this important? Well, okay, it is not really “important.” BUT, this will lead to a very interesting debate at your Super Bowl party this weekend. So, here are some points to ponder:

  • The issue adds to a continuing reflective analysis of the primary role of major college athletics. Are major college athletics really serving the college’s educational mission? Is the implicit promise to the players of a free education sufficient in light of the enormous money colleges earn from Division I football and basketball? By the way, Division I football and basketball players are the players CAPA is initially targeting –because that is where largest commercialization has occurred.
  • Are the players “employees?” CAPA says that the players should be considered employees because they receive scholarship money. Is that enough? If so, what about those students who receive academic scholarships? Could they too someday join a union to negotiate more benefits to an academic grant-in-aid? Most people who have reviewed this issue believe that even this NLRB, with its relatively union friendly bent, will dismiss the petition and find that the players are not employees.
  • Who is the employer? Is it the college or the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Associaiton)? If it is the college, then the “employer” is very limited in what it can negotiate with the players given the NCAA’s regulations – extremely intricate and intrusive regulations at that, which dictate much of the relationship between a college athlete and the college.
  • For example, if players do begin to receive a weekly “allowance,” as some have advocated, does that allowance convert the players to “employees?” If so, then perhaps they could be unionized. But, the amount of the allowance most likely would be set by NCAA regulation, not by the colleges themselves.

Let the debate begin – or better stated, let the debate continue, but with this very interesting added twist. Labor law in college football – who knew?