Dartmouth basketball team votes to form first union in US college sports

Credit: REUTERS/Rob Kinnan

By Daniel Wiessner

March 5 (Reuters) - Men's basketball players at Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school in New Hampshire, voted on Tuesday to form a union, in a potentially transformative moment for U.S. college athletics.

The team voted 13-2 to join an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union that had petitioned to represent the players last year, according to results tallied by the National Labor Relations Board.

The vote comes amid a broader effort to roll back restrictions on compensation for student athletes, such as a bar on athletes profiting from the commercial use of their name, image and likeness.

Athletic programs generate an estimated $8.5 billion in revenue for top schools each year, and less than 7% of that money is passed on to athletes in the form of scholarships and stipends, according to a 2020 report by the National Bureau for Economic Research.

Dartmouth in a statement said it had filed a request for the five-member labor board to decide whether basketball players are the school's employees and were eligible to vote at all. The lengthy process of challenging the election results will likely delay bargaining between Dartmouth and the union for months or longer.

The school said it had a long history of building positive relationships with its employees' unions, but that basketball players are students and not workers.

"Classifying these students as employees simply because they play basketball is as unprecedented as it is inaccurate," the school said.

The school is challenging a ruling last month by a regional director with the labor board who said the players were Dartmouth's employees because the basketball program generates publicity, alumni engagement and financial donations and the school has significant control over them.

Forming a union will allow Dartmouth basketball players to bargain collectively with the school over compensation and working conditions, such as practice schedules, travel policies and discipline from coaches. It could also spur student-athletes at other schools around the country to unionize.

The decision teeing up the election was the first of its kind since the labor board's General Counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo, issued a memo in 2021 arguing that many college athletes should be classified as school employees. The memo focused on athletes who receive scholarships as a form of compensation. Dartmouth and other Ivy League schools do not award athletic scholarships.

Abruzzo, an appointee of Democratic President Joe Biden, said at the time that her office would bring complaints against colleges that interfere with players' organizing efforts. The general counsel acts as a prosecutor, bringing cases to the five-member board, whose decisions can be appealed in federal appeals courts.

The University of Southern California and the National Collegiate Athletics Association, the governing body for college sports, were hit with a complaint from Abruzzo's office last May, claiming they had blocked student athletes from unionizing by not treating them as the school's employees. The case is pending.

The labor board, which currently has a Democratic majority and one vacancy, has never directly addressed whether college athletes can be considered school employees.

In 2014, football players at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, became the first college athletes to vote in a union election, but the ballots were impounded due to a legal challenge by the school.

The board ultimately ruled that it could not decide whether the players were eligible to unionize because doing so would impact all of the schools Northwestern competes against, including many state-run colleges. The board's enforcement powers only extend to private employers.

That may not be an issue in the Dartmouth case because the Ivy League conference only includes private schools that rarely play against public colleges.

(Reporting by Daniel Wiessner in Albany, New York; Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi, Bill Berkrot and Lisa Shumaker)

((daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com))

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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