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College Athletes Would Gain Right to Unionize Under New Bill

May 28, 2021

Democrats in Congress are looking to change the college sports landscape with new legislation that would classify college athletes as employees of their institutions and give them the power to bargain collectively.

Senators Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, and Bernie Sanders, the Independent from Vermont, introduced the College Athlete Right to Organize Act in the Senate, and Representative Jamaal Bowman, a Democrat from New York, is taking the lead on companion legislation in the House.

"This is a matter of basic fairness, but it's also a civil rights issue," Murphy tweeted. "The athletes in the most high-profile sports are overwhelmingly Black men and women, while those with the power are largely white. We can't fix all of the problems with the NCAA from Washington. What we can do is give the college athletes who are being taken advantage of the power to fix things through their own collective action."

The legislation would amend the National Labor Relations Act to define athletes as employees of their colleges if they receive compensation for their participation in intercollegiate sports, whether that compensation is in the form of grant-in-aid or any other form. Both public and private colleges would be defined as employers within the context of intercollegiate sports.

Athletes would be allowed to unionize, and the National Labor Relations Board would facilitate multiemployer bargaining units for each athletic conference. The NLRB would also have jurisdiction over higher education institutions with respect to athletics and collective bargaining, giving athletes the ability to petition the NLRB to settle any disputes.

The bill includes language prohibiting colleges from establishing scholarship agreements that waive the right of athletes to unionize and ensuring that athletes' tax status or scholarship eligibility doesn't change because of their employment status.

The NCAA said in a statement that the legislation would "directly undercut the purpose of college," which is to earn a degree.

"The NCAA and its member schools support student-athletes through scholarships -- many of which cover their full cost of education debt free -- and numerous other benefits," the organization said, adding that while the NCAA and its member schools support modernizing name, image and likeness rules, "turning student-athletes into union employees is not the answer."

Passing the legislation is a long shot in the Senate -- it would need support from all the Democrats and 10 Republicans to reach the 60-vote threshold.

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