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NLRB Deems Dartmouth Athletes “Employees”: The Future of College Athlete Unionization

The NLRB recently ruled that men’s basketball players at Dartmouth College are not just students, but they are school employees. This ruling grants the college athletes the right to unionize – a historic first for college sports.

Does this mean that all college athletes now are going to unionize? Read on to learn more.

Why Did the NLRB Find that Dartmouth Athletes Are Employees?

The NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) based its decision that student athletes are “employees” on the athletes’ significant contributions to the school’s athletic programs. The NLRB reasoned that their contributions to Dartmouth’s operations parallel the definition of an employee.

The law considers several characteristics to classify persons as employees, including:

  1. Revenue generation: Employees directly contribute to the generation of revenue through their labor or services.
  2. Level of control exerted over tasks: Employees are subject to direction and oversight regarding the tasks they perform and how they are performed.
  3. Degree of service devotion: Employees devote their time and effort only to their employer and their effort is geared to serving their employer’s interests.
  4. Level of control exerted over schedule: Employers exert control over employees’ schedules and activities, determining when and how long they are expected to work.
  5. Tools and equipment. Employers generally supply the tools and equipment used by the employees to generate revenue.

The NRLB emphasized that athletes invest considerable time, energy, and talent into representing Dartmouth in various sports competitions where the athletes generate substantial revenue for Dartmouth. The level of control exerted over these athletes by coaches and athletic departments is substantial.  Dartmouth dictates training schedules, sets performance expectations, and even enforces standards for off-field conduct. Dartmouth athletes, like all college athletes, dedicate their time and effort only to the university they attend and no other school or entity.

By recognizing the labor and contributions of athletes, the NLRB’s decision challenges the traditional narrative of amateurism in college sports. The ruling underscores the need for fair treatment and compensation for college athletes.

The big take-away is that the ruling has the potential to empower athletes to advocate for their rights and reshape the dynamics of the NCAA’s regulatory framework, namely to unionize.


How will the Distinction as Employees Impact College Athlete Unionization?

The distinction of college athletes as employees marks a significant milestone in the ongoing movement towards unionization within collegiate athletics. The NLRB has opened the door for the athletes to exercise their rights to collective bargaining and advocate for fair treatment. This distinction empowers college athletes to address longstanding issues such as compensation, health and safety protections, and academic support through organized collective action.

With the ability to unionize, college athletes gain a powerful mechanism for negotiating with institutions and athletic organizations. Through collective bargaining, athletes can voice their concerns and demands, seeking improvements in areas such as scholarship benefits, medical coverage, and educational support.  The recognition of athletes as employees underscores the importance of their contributions to the multi-billion dollar collegiate sports industry, questioning the notion of amateurism and highlighting the need for equitable treatment.

As college athletes across the country grapple with the demands of competing at the highest level while balancing academic responsibilities, the distinction as employees provides a pathway towards greater agency and autonomy. By joining together in unions, athletes can leverage their collective strength to bring about meaningful change and to shape the future of collegiate athletics. This shift towards unionization signals a new era in which athletes are empowered to advocate for their rights and strive for a more equitable and just system within the realm of college sports.

Dartmouth and other universities strongly disagree.  Dartmouth has appealed claiming that the NLRB has overstepped its bounds.  Dartmouth argues that “neither the Board nor any court has ever found that student-athletes are “employees” under the Act.”


Challenges and Opportunities: The Path Forward For College Athlete Unionization

While the NLRB’s decision represents a significant victory for college athletes, the path forward is not without question. Here are key points highlighting the challenges of collegiate athlete unionization:

  1. Student status: Critics contend that college athletes should remain as students, benefiting from scholarships and educational opportunities rather than being employees.
  2. Logistical complexity: Particularly within Division 1 sports programs, increased costs associated with salaries, benefits, and other expenditures that may be demanded by unionized players, pose significant concerns.
  3. Institutional resistance: The NCAA maintains a strong stance on the amateur status of student-athletes and asserts that unionization could undermine the core tenants of college sports.

On the other hand, forming unions presents a unique opportunity to redefine the power dynamics within collegiate sports. These opportunities include:

  1. Fairness: College athletes, who often serve as the primary revenue generators for their institutions, have long been deprived of fair compensation and working conditions.  Universities capitalize upon athletes’ talent and pocket huge profits, it is argued. Unionization offers the opportunity to rectify this imbalance.
  2. Employee Status: Athletes gain greater leverage to negotiate for their rights and protections and can demand fair wages, benefits, and working conditions commensurate with their contributions to the success and profitability of collegiate sports programs.
  3. Health and Safety: Unionization could provide a megaphone for athletes to address critical health and safety concerns, particularly in high-contact sports such as football and basketball.
  4. Financial Rights: Athletes often receive limited compensation despite their significant contributions to the financial success of collegiate sports programs. Through unionization, athletes can advocate for a fair share of the revenue generated by their athletic endeavors.
  5. NIL Rights: The recent changes in NIL (Name, Image, and Likeness) rules have granted athletes the opportunity to monetize their personal brands and capitalize on their celebrity status. Unionization can further amplify athletes’ bargaining power in negotiating NIL rights.

As college athletes assert their rights and demand greater accountability from institutions, the future of collegiate athletics could be on the verge of drastic change if the ruling is upheld on appeal.  The NLRB’s recognition of Dartmouth athletes as employees marks a pivotal moment in college sports.

Contact an Expert

This decision marks a significant milestone in the ongoing debate surrounding the rights and status of college athletes will no doubt impact collegiate athletics in dramatic ways.

At Gardner Employment Law, we stay current with the NLRB’s decisions, so that we can evaluate your rights carefully and accurately. If you are a student-athlete with questions about your status or if you need help understanding how the NRLB’s ruling may affect you or someone in your family, we are happy to provide that help.

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