April 11

The Dawn Of Student Athlete Unions


The Dartmouth men's basketball team hasn't been competitively consequential in decades. But their recent decision to form the first ever student athlete union may prove to be one of the most consequential moments in the history of college athletics. 

Dartmouth player Cade Haskins and his teammates officially voted to unionize last month in a small New Hampshire sports bar. The end goal is pretty simple: collectively bargain to earn wages as school employees, similar to other student employees on campus. 

How One Of The First Ever Student Athlete Unions Started

According to The Atlantic, Haskins and his teammates first saw the potential to unionize after student dining employees at Dartmouth unionized. The result wasn't just a better pay for those workers, but for all student workers across the campus. 

That led to conversations between the players and the realization that they were required, much like other student employees, to perform a service in the duty of the school. After all, even their student managers get paid as university employees. 

For their part, the players aren't asking for anything exorbitant. They just want to earn the same $16.25 per hour minimum wage that other student employees earn on campus.

Haskins and his teammate Romeo Myrthil announced in February they would form the Ivy League Players Association, which would benefit all players in the Ivy League. Unlike many Division I athletes, players at Ivy League schools don't get traditional scholarships to play sports. Similar to how Dartmouth student dining employees created a ripple effect across the school, Haskins and company hope their decision to unionize can eventually help not only other Ivy League athletes, but all college athletes. 

The Difference Between Student Athlete Unions And NIL Deals

In some ways, the advent of the NIL era in college athletics plays a role in the development of student athlete unions. When California first started allowing student athletes to earn money from their name, image, and likeness, other schools and states quickly followed suit. Even though the NCAA tried to fight it, both momentum and the law were seemingly on athletes side.

But these deals — as important as they are — still largely affect individual athletes. Whether an athlete agrees to a social media sponsorship or a collective directly pays a student athlete to commit to and play for a certain university, these transactions still happen on an individual level involving third parties. Student athlete unions envision a slightly different world — one where the university directly pays the students it otherwise "employs." 

And this is a big sticking point. Are student athletes employees of a university? Laura Sacks, the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, says they are. According to Sacks, the players perform work in exchange for compensation in the form of meals, travel, equipment, facility access, and more. Even though the Dartmouth men's basketball team doesn't actually turn a profit for the school, Sacks makes the perfectly valid point that a company's profitability has nothing to do with whether or not it's capable of having employees. 

So, because the men's basketball players are employees in the NLRB's eyes, the players took it upon themselves to form a union for collective bargaining reasons. And this is the biggest different between a college sports unions and NIL deals. One utilizes the power of the whole in direct relation to their employer (i.e. the school), while the other relies on a network of third parties to benefit individual athletes. They're both viable ways to compensate student athletes and deal with the core issue at hand, but are fundamentally different approaches to it.

So Where Do Student Athletes And Universities Go From Here?

Dartmouth initially balked at the idea of basketball players being employees of the university. The legal team said it is appealing Sacks' decision to label students as employees, and said in a statement that "it would be impossible to distinguish these student-athlete-‘employees’ from other students at Dartmouth or any other university or college (or even those in high school) that are engaged in extracurricular activities that require their time, talents, skills, and efforts, and for which they receive no monetary compensation but do receive university or activity branded apparel."

But when you consider that some members of the basketball team are already considered student staff, that argument starts to become fairly thin. When you consider that professional athletes are considered employees of the teams and leagues they play for, it becomes even more difficult to reason your way out of how a student athlete relationship is much different. 

However, anything is possible. 

But since unionizing, Haskins says others have quietly reached out to learn more about their process and success so far. It's not far-fetched to see other, smaller programs follow suit. 

Of course, universities could respond any number of ways. They could decide to close down any university-sponsored program that seemed like a major money drain or superfluous (though it's hard to argue universities with hundreds of million to billions of dollars in endowments can't swing paying a couple dozen students minimum wage). Or they could fully embrace the concept and lean into it, using it as another recruiting tool to bring players who still ultimately pay the university far more than the university would pay them. 

But while it's hard to know exactly what the next decade holds for student athletes in this new era, it's almost certainly not going to look like it does today. And what it looks like today is already a far cry from what it was before the NIL era. 


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