Dartmouth basketball players could become first unionized college athletes

Chris Isidore, CNN | 2/6/2024, 10:57 a.m.
Basketball players at Dartmouth will get a chance to vote on whether to join a union, a potential breakthrough in ...
Dartmouth basketball players could become first unionized college athletes. Mandatory Credit: Charles Krupa/AP/FILE

Basketball players at Dartmouth will get a chance to vote on whether to join a union, a potential breakthrough in efforts to unionize the lucrative business of college sports.

The decision to hold the vote was announced late Monday by the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees union representation votes for private employers. The NLRB’s regional director in Boston ruled that because Dartmouth “has the right to control the work performed by the Dartmouth men’s basketball team, and the players perform that work in exchange for compensation, I find that the petitioned-for basketball players are employees.”

Dartmouth will challenge the finding, Dartmouth President Sian Beilock told CNN Tuesday.

“We have productive relationships with so many unions. We believe our athletes are students,” she told Poppy Harlow on CNN This Morning. “We don’t give athletic scholarships. We are student-athletes here, and we believe our students should be thought of in that way.”

But the Service Employees International Union, the union seeking to represent the basketball players, argued that while the players at Dartmouth do not receive scholarships they do receive compensation in the form of “room and board for part of the year, equipment, apparel, tickets to both home and road games, footwear, access to nutrition and medical professionals, exclusive use of certain facilities, and academic support.”

This is the second time that the NLRB has considered whether student athletes are employees who are eligible for union representation. The previous time was in 2014 and 2015 when there was an effort to organize football players at Northwestern University.

But in that case the full NLRB board blocked a vote from being completed. It ended up not ruling on whether the football players were or were not employees but instead ruled that it did not have jurisdiction to hold an election since the labor law governing it only allows the NLRB to look at private-sector work places, and most college football programs are at state schools.

The regional director in the current case, however, pointed out that the NLRB at that time did not rule on “whether team-by-team organizing is never appropriate and did not find that it would never assert jurisdiction over a single-team unit.”

Another change from that earlier case came in 2021 when the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that NCAA rules prohibiting compensation to student athletes violated antitrust laws, opening the way for greater compensation.

Professional sports is one of the most heavily unionized sectors of the economy, with athletes in all four major team sports played in the United States being union members. Union representation grew to include minor league baseball players in 2022.

NCAA Division I athletics generated nearly $17.5 billion in revenue in 2022, according to an NCAA report. Dartmouth reported its men’s basketball team had total revenue of $1.3 million in 2021-22 school year, the most recent for which data is publicly available from the Department of Education.

There are many university students, such as graduate student teaching assistants and college students, who have on-campus jobs and who are union members. In fact, that has been one sector of the nation’s overall work force that has seen the greatest success by union organizing campaigns in recent years, with thousands of students voting to join unions. But there is less a question that those students are employees, since they receive W-2 forms and pay as their compensation.