NLRB rules that Dartmouth college athletes can form union

In a historic ruling that could change the entire face of union organizing, the National Labor Relations Board ruled Feb. 5 that basketball players attending Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, have the right to unionize. In other words, the NLRB recognized these student-athletes for what they truly are: workers. 

Some of Dartmouth’s basketball players. NLRB says they have the right to unionize.

What this ruling means is that these players should be compensated for their time, labor and skill on the court like at any workplace. Therefore, they should have the right to collective bargaining.

Dartmouth College is part of the Ivy League Conference, along with Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Princeton and Yale University, and the University of Pennsylvania. All eight of these institutions are privately owned. They fall under the auspices of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). 

When Northwestern University football players tried to organize in 2014, unfortunately the attempts failed because public universities, such as Northwestern don’t fall under the legal jurisdiction of the NLRB. This is not the case with Dartmouth.

Another big step forward

Like every capitalist institution, the NCAA is about big business. In 2021, the NCAA took in $1.5 billion in revenue, mainly through its contracts involving televising and streaming of games, especially Division 1 basketball and football.  

This Feb. 5 ruling comes on the heels of another historic ruling in January 2021, when the NCAA was forced to waive its backward stance preventing athletes from being compensated for their name, image and likeness (NIL) based on their popularity and visibility — no matter what their chosen sport.  

This ruling responded to the fact that the NCAA provides millions of dollars in salaries to coaches and athletic programs, but no pay for the athletes themselves.

A July 6, 2021, Workers World article, “Step toward unionization, student-athletes win historic ruling,” states: “College athletes can now negotiate endorsement deals, profit off their social media accounts, sell autographs and otherwise make money from their names, images and likenesses, potentially directing millions of dollars into the pockets of these athletes every year. And they will have the right of legal representation in making these deals.  

“This is a historic ruling, since college athletes have been shamelessly superexploited for decades by athletic programs, booster clubs and college administrations for their ability to perform superb athletic feats before packed arenas and fields in a multitude of sporting events. The athletes have had no direct compensation or benefits like other workers.” (workers.org/2021/07/57412/)

While powerhouse universities such as Ohio State, Alabama, Michigan and others can offer tens of thousands of dollars in athletic scholarships to working-class students who could never afford the tuition, Ivy League schools do not provide similar scholarships. Ivy League athletes play before smaller crowds, so their games get far less publicity.  

The 15-member Dartmouth basketball team is planning a March 5 election to join the Service Employees Union (SEIU), which has organized other Dartmouth campus workers. SEIU President Mary Kay Henry remarked on the significance of the ruling: “This is a historic step forward for economic justice, racial justice, and union rights — not just for college athletes but for millions of young people across our country whose work is not valued like it should be.” (Washington Post, Feb. 5)

The team representatives, Cade Haskins and Romeo Myrthil, said that they would like to eventually organize a conference-wide Ivy League Players Association. It remains to be seen whether the Dartmouth College administration will appeal the NLRB ruling. Whether or not there’s an appeal, the efforts for student-athletes, whatever sports they play, will fight to win union recognition. In fact, the struggle will only grow. 

Monica Moorehead

Monica.Moorehead@workers.org

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Monica Moorehead

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