Northwestern Unionization and the Compensation of College Athletes

The story of how Northwestern University worked towards becoming unionized showed the world that players have a voice and no longer want to be taken advantage of. Kain Colter, Northwestern’s quarterback at the time, told his coach Pat Fitzgerald that he thought it was important to change collegiate sports. He realized that the structure of power within the NCAA belittled college athletes. Colter’s main concerns centered around the long-term health care of college athletes. There have been numerous stories with athletes feeling neglected after sacrificing their bodies while representing the school they are competing for. There are also thousands of athletes that cannot afford to buy groceries for themselves. The lives of these college athletes gets consumed by the meetings, practices, and games they are required to attend and if they do not they will face consequences.


As mentioned in the article, these athletes are spending around 50 to 60 hours a week with the team. Even if they wanted to get a part-time job to make some kind of money, they do not have the option to. For these reasons and many more is why Colter felt the need to try to form a union at Northwestern. He recognized that these institutions do not have the best interest of these athletes at heart. The National Football League, National Basketball Association, and other leagues each have unions to protect their athletes, but the NCAA does not.

Over time, Colter and his partners worked diligently to gain the support of several athletes at Northwestern and other colleges throughout the country. They even got the support of the Steelworkers to back their unionization. They began having monthly conference calls with these athletes to express their concerns on how they are treated unfairly. After hearing from all of these athletes, it made them want to push for unionization even more. Union cards were signed by players and turned in. At that moment history was made. A hearing was scheduled to take place in front of the regional National Labor of Relations (NLRB) in Chicago. Eventually, the case made its way to the NLRB in Washington and was voted against.

There have been a lot of positive and negative outcomes since the decision was made not to move forward with the union. The negative outcome was the denied opportunity for collective bargaining and unionization, which would have been a game changer for college sports. Even though their motion to form a union was voted against, there was still a positive outcome. For starters, Colter and others that supported him shed light on the mistreatment and struggles of college athletes. They made their voices heard around the world which has caused the NCAA to make some changes. Michael Wasser stated in an article posted on Jobs With Justice:

The NCAA and member conferences have already begun to institute reforms that will benefit all college scholarship athletes, including expanded scholarship guarantees, more money to cover food and other living expenses, and improved medical care. The players showed the value of using a collective voice to stick up for each other.”

college athletesOne of the biggest and most debatable questions that constantly comes up in sports conversations is, “Should college athletes be considered employees and get paid?” I used to be a firm advocate for college athletes being compensated because their lives are like full-time jobs. While in undergrad at the University of Florida, I formed relationships with various athletes and they would always tell me how exhausted they were because they had to be with the team on a consistent basis nearly 8 months out of the year. Their daily schedules were made out for them in full detail from the moment they wake up until the conclusion of going to training table after practice. They barely had time to focus on their lives outside of the program and many of them wanted to get jobs to be able to purchase groceries, new clothes, and other important needs.

I only heard one side of this debate until recently, which kind of opened my eyes as to why college athletes cannot be paid. I read a book by Kristi Dosh, called Saturday Millionaires How Winning Football Builds Winning Colleges, that explains in detail why compensating athletes would be bad for athletic departments and institutions as a whole. The first reason was the impact it would have on Title IX. Title IX is not something that can just be easily reformed, and one of the biggest reasons it was implemented was to ensure there was comparable treatment of female athletes. The issue with this is that at many universities the main sports that generate money are football, basketball, and baseball. So only compensating athletes of these sports to leads further issues. She also goes on to mention how athletic departments and institutions can lose their non-profit status because it would be considered a private benefit. Lastly, paying student-athletes would come with increased expenses for these individuals because they would have to be taxed above their tuition/full value of their tuition.

Knowing the impact Northwestern made on the NCAA and having a better understanding as to why athletes cannot paid, shows that there is still a lot of work to be done. There is still a long way to go with this issue and hopefully one day both can reach common ground where all parties can be satisfied.


Latisha Fields

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