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College football unionization rankings: Which private schools are next?

Northwestern football players have the power to form a union, and other private schools are concerned the movement could be headed their way. So let's figure out the likeliest spots.


Last week, nearly every private university in the top level of college football sent a letter to the National Labor Relations Board, urging it to overturn the decision that made Northwestern football players employees of the university.

For now, the board's decision only applies to private universities, meaning that if it's upheld, it would be considerably easier for football players at private schools to also become employees and collectively bargain with their respective universities.

Immediately, the conversation turned to Boston College as the most likely place a union could take hold. Boston is a generally liberal city, and some lawmakers there are even trying to put together a city-wide "College Athletes Bill of Rights."

But that got us thinking. At which FBS private schools is unionization most likely to try out next, and at which ones will it never happen? education reporter Libby Nelson, SB Nation college sites manager Matt Brown and I got together to discuss it.

Collectively, we came up with a ranking from likeliest to least likely to be the subject of a union attempt:

  1. Boston College
  2. Rice
  3. Stanford
  4. Duke
  5. Vanderbilt
  6. Syracuse
  7. Miami
  8. Notre Dame
  9. USC
  10. Wake Forest
  11. Tulane
  12. TCU
  13. Tulsa
  14. Baylor
  15. SMU
  16. BYU

We had similar criteria. Schools that don't have especially conservative (and therefore likely anti-union) alumni bases, that tend to be mediocre at football, and that have pretty tough admission standards (and assumedly pretty smart athletes) ranked highly. Though that obviously doesn't fully describe all of the schools up top.

Northwestern fit that bill pretty well. Boston College is similar. We all agreed that Rice and Duke fit pretty well, too, since both are good academic schools with pedestrian football programs. And while they are in somewhat conservative areas, they're less "of their region" than, say, Baylor or Wake Forest.

There are some interesting cases, and we had individual thoughts on why some schools might be exceptions to our general criteria. Here's a look at a few of them:

Notre Dame

Lists of the most financially powerful college football programs make clear why Notre Dame would be a tempting target. And there's a long, historic affiliation between labor unions and the Catholic church.

On the other hand, it's not clear if religious colleges even fall under the NLRB's jurisdiction. Several local boards have said they do, but Catholic colleges point to a 1979 Supreme Court case that blocked Catholic school faculty from organizing. (The national board is exploring the issue in cases related to adjunct faculty.) - Libby Nelson


Stanford is an interesting case. It's a pretty liberal school with the best academics in FBS, and for those reasons, both Libby and Matt ranked it second. I put the Cardinal sixth, and while I don't think a union would gain traction at Stanford, the proceedings would be fascinating.

Somewhat curiously, the school has stuck its nose into the union fight and potential NCAA change more than any other institution. Athletic director Bernard Muir did so at both a House hearing on the union fight and the Ed O'Bannon trial, and the school is staunchly opposed to any changes coming from outside the system.

However, Stanford is also home to economists and lawyers who have been sympathetic to NCAA change, including the O'Bannon case's key economic witness. I think there would be enough pressure from within to squash a union before it starts. But the fighting among high-level university employees and top professors could be fascinating to watch. - Kevin Trahan


BYU is run by the LDS church, a religion that tends to skew strongly towards conservative politics in the US. And most students at the school, including a ton of football players, are LDS.  The Cougars also recruit heavily in areas of the country that are hardly bastions of pro-union sentiment, like Texas, Utah, Idaho and Arizona.

When you add a highly conservative student body to an institution that could credibly threaten to fold up the team if they thought it made financial sense (like they recently did with BYU-Hawaii), you have all the ingredients you need for an environment that would likely be highly hostile to unionization. Your typical BYU student would probably rather sign up for the Pinkertons. - Matt Brown


The Trojans recently announced four-year athletic scholarships, and the Pac-12 is a conference that has traditionally pushed to give additional benefits to players, so they may have an argument that they could give players what they want without having to unionize. Given the size and prestige of the school's athletic department, it's possible a union could arrive, but it doesn't look as likely on paper as several other programs. - Matt Brown


Superficially, Vanderbilt looks a lot like union test-case Northwestern: a rising program in a powerful conference with high academic standards. Vanderbilt doesn't present the religious challenge of Notre Dame, and it recruits further out of the largely anti-union South than other programs in the SEC.

If CAPA succeeds at Northwestern, it might look for more of the same at Vanderbilt. If it fails, a Southern Northwestern could seem like a less attractive prospect. - Libby Nelson


All of the schools at the top of our list except Rice are in power conferences, but the Owls present an intriguing possibility. The school is located in a conservative state, but it is not as Texas as Baylor is — half of Rice's student body comes from outside of Texas — and it's a very good academic school. The fact that it isn't located in a power conference could increase the chances of unionization.

Under the new NCAA rules, the school might only increase its athlete benefits to Conference USA standards, rather than power conference standards. That might be an incentive to unionize. "Who can benefit from unionizing" is different from "who will unionize," but given Rice's academic prowess and its football standing, it seems to be as good a candidate as any other school outside of Boston College. - Kevin Trahan


Your turn! Which schools do you think could be next to unionize? Could it even be a public school like UConn that doesn't fall under this ruling's jurisdiction but sits in a liberal state? Is your school too high or too low on this list? Tell us why in the comments.