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Because college athletes operate in an “invisible labor market” that exploits students’ money-making potential while severely limiting their rights and mobility, they are entitled to unionization and collective bargaining rights – and would be well-advised to use them, according to a new study. Athletes are subject to “non-negotiable, one-sided agreements imposed by a monopoly” – the National Collegiate Athletic Association – and thus function as employees despite having no say in their welfare, argues Michael LeRoy, a professor of law and of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois. LeRoy proposes a special kind of collective bargaining for athletes, one that “draws from existing labor laws for public safety employees that prohibit strikes but allow final offer arbitration on a limited range of bargaining subjects.”

As part of the massive commercialization of college sports, NCAA football and National Football League games are coordinated to minimize competition between the two and maximize revenues, supporting the argument that collegiate athletes more closely resemble professional athletes than amateur ones, LeRoy argues. (Under the NCAA’s “amateurism” model, athletes are denied salaries, benefits from agents, extra benefits and contact with professional teams.) Just the threat of unionization would produce a “union substitution effect,” LeRoy says, prompting colleges to respond by giving athletes more say. “An invisible union is a plausible middle-ground approach to address the interests of student-athletes,” LeRoy said in a press release. “Without a credible threat of unionization, schools have little incentive to concede that they are essentially professionalizing college football.”