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Robert McRae III #23 of the Dartmouth Big Green watches his team play against Columbia Lions in their NCAA men’s basketball game on February 16, 2024

The Dartmouth College men’s basketball team voted 13 to 2 on March 5 to form a union, sparking concerns about what more student-athlete unions could mean for the future of college sports.

Adam Gray/Getty Images

A week after Dartmouth College’s men’s basketball team voted to form the first athlete union in college sports, House Republicans warned Tuesday that unionization poses an “existential threat” to the future of college sports. Democrats countered that “the sky is not falling.”

While congressional committees have held a number of hearings in the past year about the state of college athletics and athlete compensation, this was the first to tackle head-on what’s become one of the key questions facing college athletics today: whether players should be considered employees who can collectively bargain.

Congress is eyeing legislation to create national rules for the name, image and likeness rights of college athletes—a top priority for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which also wants the bill to settle the question of athletes’ employee status and affirm they aren’t employees. The Dartmouth vote, which the college is planning to fight, only adds more urgency to the NCAA’s ask.

“The increased costs of unionization and administrative headaches would threaten to make low-funded programs economically unviable, including many women’s sports and small-school athletic programs, resulting in fewer teams, fewer scholarships, and fewer opportunities for young people,” said Representative Burgess Owens, a Utah Republican, at Tuesday’s hearing on “safeguarding student-athletes.”

Owens and other Republicans on the House Education and Workforce Committee said allowing college athletes to unionize would cause “pure chaos,” take away from these students’ academic experience and force institutions to cut programs, particularly the non–revenue-generating- and Olympic sports. The current system, several Republican lawmakers argued, offers athletes “flexibility” and the ability to get a college education—with or without a scholarship.

“Most college student athletes are not on scholarship and they are willing participants,” said Representative Bob Good, a Virginia Republican. “They are the envy of the rest of campus and their high school teammates who didn’t have the ability to continue to college.”

Democrats countered that college athletes should be able to share in the revenue they help generate and deserve to bargain over provisions affecting their health, safety and compensation. They pointed to survey data showing that some athletes experience food insecurity at higher rates than the general student population.

“Unionization or the opportunity for unionization is not the end but the beginning for an equitable system and treatment for people who frequently get the short end of the stick especially in a multi-billion industry,” said Representative Mark DeSaulnier, a California Democrat.

DeSaulnier and others suggested that even the potential for this group to unionize could pressure colleges to improve how they treat athletes.

A regional office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) paved the way for Dartmouth’s historic vote after ruling last month that the basketball team members were, in fact, employees. Laura A. Sacks, regional director for the NLRB’s Northeast region, said the college had control over the players, who perform work that benefits Dartmouth. Although Dartmouth doesn’t give out athletic scholarships, the players receive other benefits, including gear, Sacks said.

The Dartmouth decision follows an 2021 memo from the NLRB general counsel that said college athletes are employees, as well as a 2016 decision allowing student teaching assistants at Columbia University to unionize. The Supreme Court also cast doubt in 2021 on the NCAA’s amateur model, fueling efforts to allow athletes to unionize.

Some panelists and Republicans argued that the NLRB’s Dartmouth ruling could have broad ramifications in higher education, while Democrats sought to downplay the reach of the decision.

“Now is not the time to scare our students with highly unlikely worst-case scenarios and bad-faith exaggerations of the impacts that this recent NLRB decision will have on college sports,” said Representative Lucy McBath, a Georgia Democrat. “We must remember that this applies to just one team at just one private university in a very specific situation.”

Pros and Cons of Athletic Unions

The hearing did not include any athletes. Instead, the committee heard from a college administrator, two lawyers and a former NLRB chairman.

Jill Bodensteiner, athletics director at St. Joseph’s University, told the committee that the “limited benefits” that unions could provide to college athletes wouldn’t outweigh “the considerable negative impact” on college athletics as a whole.

“I’m not sure a handful of unions representing one sport at one school or at 10 schools around the country get to those issues in an impactful way,” she said. “There’s no money to give at St. Joe’s.”

St. Joseph’s has 480 students across 20 teams—none of which generate a profit, Bodensteiner said. The costs and infrastructure required to manage potentially 21 individual bargaining units would be significant. To pay for that, she said, the university would have to make “difficult decisions.”

Tyler Sims, an employment lawyer at the firm Littler Mendelson who represents employers, said the potential consequences of unionizing could be damaging for the athletes themselves. As employees, he noted, their wages would be taxed whereas their current scholarships are not, and their status as students could become contingent on their athletic performance.

“It’s not that unions are good or bad,” said Sims. “It’s the setting here that’s the problem.”

Matthew Mitten, professor and executive director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University Law School, said classifying college athletes as employees would destroy the current model of intercollegiate sports.

“Student athletes have it very well,” Mitten said, citing policies that protect students from having their scholarships revoked for poor athletic performance as well the recent growth in name, image, likeness deals that have led to “six- and seven-figure deals” for some athletes.

Mark Gaston Pearce, executive director of the Workers’ Rights Institute at Georgetown Law and a former NLRB chair, disagreed with his fellow panelists, arguing that collective bargaining could be an effective way to address the issues facing college sports and wouldn’t spell doom for college athletics.

“Professional sports teams have been able to function and make adjustments,” he said. “It’s not going to be one-size-fits-all, at all.”

Under the current system, he said, athletes struggle to make ends meet, and if they don’t make it to the professional level, they are left with little to no benefits from their playing days while being “academically deprived.”

“We’re talking about sports being a job here,” he said. “It’s a job because of the benefits it provides to these institutions as well as the NCAA. The ability to be able to reap those benefits equally—or at least significantly—by an athlete is necessary. Otherwise, we have slavery.”

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