College Football Players Push to Unionize for Medical Benefits

Are college athletes students or employees?

Kain Colter
Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter announced yesterday that the National College Players Association would attempt to unionize. U.S. Military Academy

Yesterday, in an attempt to create the first ever union for college athletes, a group of football players appealed to the National Labor Relations Board: The asked the board to determine if they are employees of their school. This latest move is part of a long and complicated back and forth about what, exactly, these college athletes are: students or professionals? 

The N.C.A.A. has consistently argued that its players are “student-athletes” and “amateurs,” rather than employees who can be paid and given benefits. Right now, college athletes cannot be paid for anything—not games, not autographs, not photo shoots. Nothing. They haven’t been able to accept any form of compensation since a 1953 court case in which a player asked for worker’s compensation for his injuries. The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the player was an employee of the University of Denver, and that the university had to pay. In a (pretty genius) move to avoid future payments, the N.C.A.A. coined the term “student-athlete” and mandated that its universities adopt the term. And since then that distinction has held, and the N.C.A.A. has enforced its strict no-payment rules.

Even though players don’t get paid, it’s pretty clear that college football is big business. In 39 out of 50 states, the highest paid public official is a coach. The N.C.A.A. Division I football playoffs will generate $480 million, and the Bowl Championship Series pulls in $170 million. But the players cannot be paid, because the N.C.A.A. classifies players as amateur student-athletes, not professionals or employees. 

This fact has been contentious for years, as athletes bring in more and money money for the universities. Kain Colter, Northwestern’s starting quarterback, is the face of the most recent attempt to unionize. He’s attempting to turn the National College Players Association, founded in 2001 by a UCLA linebacker named Ramogi Huma, into a full fledged union. In a speech yesterday he outlined a handful of reasons why players in college should gather to form a union—the foremost of which, he says, is medical care. 

“The same medical issues that professional athletes face are the same medical issues collegiate athletes face, except we’re left unprotected,” Colter said. “The N.F.L. has the N.F.L.P.A., the N.B.A. has the N.B.A.P.A. and now college athletes have the College Athletes Players Association.”

On the other side of the table, the N.C.A.A. argues that these athletes are not athletes first. “This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education,” Donald Remy, the N.C.A.A.’s chief legal officer said in a statement. This is the same argument they’ve made for years, as athletes who perform and play at high levels push to be compensated for their time and effort.

In this case, Colter actually isn’t asking for a pay-for-play situation. The 11 point list of what the NCPA wants doesn’t include money. Rather, the NCPA is asking for things like bigger scholarships, better health coverage for athletes and increased graduation rates. The closest they come to asking for money, is number eight on their list, which says:

8. Eliminate restrictions on legitimate employment and players ability to directly benefit from commercial opportunities.

College athletes should have the same rights to secure employment and generate commercial revenue as other students and US citizens.  Such a measure could be designed to increase graduation rates and allow universities to retain the most talented athletes for the duration of their eligibility.

This union effort isn’t the first time players have pushed back at the N.C.A.A. Huma founded the NCPA in 2001 after watching his teammate get suspended for accepting groceries when his scholarship money ran out. In 2009, another UCLA player named Ed O’Bannon filed an antitrust lawsuit against the N.C.A.A. for using his image in video games and not showing him a cent of the profits. That’s exactly the kind of situation the NCPA is trying to address with the above clause.

The current appeal, though, is just one step in a long battle. If the regional NLRB office rules against the players, the players can still appeal to the federal board. (Same for the N.C.A.A.) And as long as college football remains a big business, there will questions about what benefits should accrue to the players, rather than the well-paid coaches and the schools.


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