Recreation and Sport Studies

Studying, Experiencing and Facilitating Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport through Wellness and Physical Activity

Amateurism vs. Professionalism in University Athletics: A case study of Northwestern University


A group of football players from Northwestern University, based in Evanston, Illinois, are lobbying for the right to form a labour union.  The players took their case to the National Labour Relations Board (NLRB) who ruled on March 26th that football players receiving scholarships to attend Northwestern University are to be considered employees of the educational institution.   Peter Ohr, regional director for the NLRB in Chicago, was the one who made the official ruling.  The union still has not officially formed, the University has said that they plan on appealing the decision and there is also still the need for scholarship receiving players to vote on the matter.  If the vote passes the group of players will forthwith be represented by the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA).


The players’ desire to unionize stems from the fact that top-level college athletics is a multi-billion dollar industry and the players are not receiving their fair share of the profits.  One former players claims that players dedicate 40-50 hours a week to training, practicing and playing.  This substantial time commitment limits the players’ ability to allocate enough time to their studies.  One player was quoted as saying that the amount of time that football took up kept him from applying to pre-med school.  The players would like to create a trust fund which would help pay for students to finish their degrees after their sports careers and to help fund larger scholarships.  Another argument from the players is that they sacrifice their bodies for the sake of the team.  Football is a sport in which the participants are susceptible to serious injuries.  These injuries will always have short-term effects but sometimes they can cause long-term problems for athletes; e.g. improper brain functioning as a result of concussions.  The trust fund would also help current and former players with sports-related medical fees.


The university is wholly against their football players unionizing, because in the mind of the university the players are not employees at all.  They argue the case that the funds generated from highly lucrative sports (such as football) are used  to fund other athletic programs.  Most athletic programs operate in a deficit requiring the use of moneys raised by profitable programs to fund them.  With more of the revenue going to the players some sports programs will suffer and may even need to be cut.

Other things to consider:

  • Players have said that pay-for-play salaries are not one of their objectives.
  • Laws against certain university employees (specifically graduate teaching assistants at Brown University) unionizing centered around the fact that their responsibilities were academic in nature. The football players were allowed to unionize because it was decided that their football commitments are occurring outside of the classroom. Would you agree with this?
  • How similar is this to the situation faced by the NHL that led to the lockout? Players (students) are currently upset because the majority of the money is going to the owners (universities).
  • Do you think that forming players into unions will change the meaning of the term “student-athlete” into something closer to “athlete…. oh and a student sometimes”?


2 thoughts on “Amateurism vs. Professionalism in University Athletics: A case study of Northwestern University

  1. I totally agree with paying student-athletes for their service and I don’t think their tuition being paid for is enough. In some cases, student-athletes bring hundreds of millions of dollars to their respective universities and receive nothing. Their weekly commitment to their athletic program consists of practice, weight room training, pregame interviews, actual games, post game interviews, photo shoots, volunteering, and travel. This is easily a 40-50 hour work week. This is on top of an academic schedule. While some academic schedules are less demanding than others I understand, there are student-athletes that do value academics.

    Here’s an article on the case for Nebraska paying student-athletes from 11 years ago:




  2. These students, as well as all other division 1 players from many different sports, should all be paid. It may be there developing years but these are the best players at the age level in the world, they are professional athletes weather schools want to call them that or not. The schools are making billions from them. Why shouldn’t they make some of that money, like the summary said it’s their body they are putting on the line, it’s they education they are missing out on, some compensation wouldn’t hurt.


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