Are Student-athletes Considered College Employees?

    09 March 2024

    The Dartmouth College men's basketball team voted to join a labor organization, called a union, this week.

    The move means that the student-athletes on the team could have the right to negotiate a working contract like other university employees.

    In an election held by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the team members voted 13-2 to join Service Employees International Union Local 560. The same union also represents some workers at Dartmouth.

    A student walks near the Alumni Gymnasium on the campus of Dartmouth College, Tuesday, March 5, 2024, in Hanover, N.H. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
    A student walks near the Alumni Gymnasium on the campus of Dartmouth College, Tuesday, March 5, 2024, in Hanover, N.H. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

    Cade Haskins and Romeo Myrthil are Dartmouth basketball players. The student-athletes said of the vote, "... we, as students, can also be both campus workers and union members. Dartmouth seems to be stuck in the past. It's time for the age of amateurism to end."

    However, the school in Hanover, New Hampshire has already appealed the local NLRB decision. In a statement, Dartmouth said, "Classifying these students as employees simply because they play basketball is as unprecedented as it is inaccurate."

    The school also warned the students that unionizing could get the team removed from athletic competition.

    Both sides have until March 12 to file objections with the NLRB. The case could also end up in federal court, which would likely delay the outcome for some time.

    The Dartmouth vote is the latest effort by student-athletes to unionize and gain money and other rights in exchange for many hours spent practicing and playing sports.

    In 2015, a local NLRB blocked an attempt by students on the football team at Northwestern University in Illinois to form a union. But the decision did not directly answer the question of whether student-athletes are employees.

    Growth of college sports

    The history of college students playing sports for their school goes back over 100 years.

    The National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA, is the governing body for college sports. The organization has long said that its players are "student-athletes" who go to school mainly to study.

    At first, students were not paid to play sports and were considered "amateurs." Gradually, student-athletes from large universities started receiving money for housing, food and tuition.

    In recent years, American television networks have spent more money to broadcast college sports around the country and the world. The Big Ten, an athletic organization with college teams from the New York area to Los Angeles, reached an agreement in 2022 to broadcast its football and basketball games for $7 billion.

    As college sports became popular, teams from large universities now regularly play in front of large crowds of up to 100,000 people. And some student-athletes have become even better known than professional athletes.

    In 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA could not prevent college athletes from getting paid by outside groups in return for the use of their name or image.

    That opened the door for some college athletes to make lots of money. This year, one top student-athlete is Caitlin Clark, a basketball player at the University of Iowa. She set college scoring records and reportedly earns nearly $1 million a year for the use of her name and image.

    The Dartmouth basketball players will never be famous enough to make that kind of money. One student-athlete said what he really wants from the union push is to get access to better healthcare so he can heal his basketball injuries.

    What about Dartmouth?

    Tony Clark is the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association. He said the vote gives the Dartmouth basketball players "a seat at the table and powerful voice."

    One basketball coach whose team is very well known – Dan Hurley of the University of Connecticut – said some kind of union or players' organization is the future of college sports.

    "These players are putting in incredible work days, work weeks for five, six months," he said. "I think there's so much there that's going to have to be settled."

    A 2015 legal case suggested athletes like the basketball players can spend up to 40 hours per week involved in their sports activities, leaving little time for study or work.

    Haskins said he loves playing basketball. But he has had serious injuries to his ankle, hip and shoulder while playing. "It is definitely a burden," he said.

    Union interest among younger workers is growing, says the Economic Policy Institute. Workers under 45 joined unions at the highest rate in 2023.

    Myrthil said he will talk about the union with new students who are coming next year. "We'll introduce them to the idea and what it means," he said. "And then hopefully it gets passed on."

    I'm Dan Friedell. And I'm Gena Bennett.

    Dan Friedell adapted this story for Learning English based on a report by the Associated Press.


    Words in This Story

    campus n. the grounds or land upon which a school is built

    amateurism adj. participating in something, such as a sporting event, without being paid

    classify v. to consider something as part of a group with other similar items

    unprecedented adj. not existing or having been done before

    tuition n. the money paid to attend school

    incredible adj. hard to believe, not believable

    burden n. a heavy weight, used both literally and figuratively