Dartmouth basketball team allowed to unionize, US agency says in landmark decision

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The National Labor Relations Board issued a potentially watershed ruling on Monday: Dartmouth College’s men’s basketball players are considered university employees under U.S. labor law, the board found, making them eligible to unionize.

Dartmouth will likely appeal the decision, which would essentially nullify the National Collegiate Athletics Association’s student-athlete model. The NCAA’s refusal to recognize collegiate players as employees has come under increased scrutiny in recent years as public opinion around the issue has shifted.

“The view of college athletes as amateurs is antiquated and should be dismissed as a quaint gesture of a bygone time,” a lawyer for the team wrote in legal filings. But Dartmouth’s lawyers argued “students who participate in intercollegiate athletics are students first and athletes second.”

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Attitudes toward student athletes have changed in recent years

Sources:  The Portland Press Herald, New York Times

More people now believe that college athletes should be compensated for their work, and even the highest court in the U.S. has weighed in on the issue: “Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on a theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate,” Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh said in 2021 when the court ruled that student athletes could be paid in limited ways. But compensation rules are different at Ivy League schools like Dartmouth that do not offer athletic scholarships, The Portland Press Herald reported, so the college’s men’s basketball team decided to unionize to negotiate salaries, hours, and working conditions.

Not long ago, “such efforts were greeted with strong, sustained opposition” and a desire to preserve the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s “cherished model of amateurism above maneuverability for players,” the New York Times reported. “We are just in a completely different place with college sports,” the founder and executive director of the College Football Players Association, a group that promotes the unionization efforts of college football players, told the Times in September.

Dartmouth unionization could cause a legal ‘domino effect’

Sources:  The Chronicle of Higher Education, Orange County Register, Associated Press, Sports Ilustrated

The Dartmouth team’s efforts “could have a domino effect in the Ivy League and also for other private schools,” potentially motivating other student athletes to unionize, an expert on college sports told The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Back in 2014, football players from Northwestern tried to unionize and had assembled to cast votes, but in the end the U.S. National Labor Relations Board declined to assert its jurisdiction over the effort. Now, the board is taking a more proactive stance. In a separate case, the NLRB regional office in Los Angeles issued a complaint against the University of Southern California, the Pac-12 Conference, and the NCAA , alleging that they have misclassified players from their football, men’s basketball, and women’s basketball teams as “student-athletes” instead of “employees.” The board has not yet reached a verdict in the case, but a legal expert told the Orange County Register that universities will need to justify the non-employee status of athletes “given the revenue that’s generated.” Currently, athletes are able to make money through sponsorship deals, but lawmakers in California have also proposed legislation to ensure athletes participate in revenue sharing with their universities.

Classifying student athletes as employees could open a ‘Pandora’s box’ of other legal questions

Source:  Bloomberg Law

If student athletes are reclassified as employees, it would open a “Pandora’s box” of other legal questions for other higher education institutions, especially smaller schools that may not be able to keep up with the financial demands of employing athletes the way that bigger ones can, one sports lawyer told Bloomberg. For example, the change could open up discrimination suits under Title IX regulations prohibiting sex discrimination on campuses, as male athletes may be offered higher salaried contracts than their female counterparts. Athletes could also be fired at will and non-revenue generating sports may be cut, such as swimming and gymnastics. “These are questions we can’t answer right now, but they’re going to have to be figured out,” a labor law professor said.