Sports

Will college athletes unionize? We'll soon find out

The Dartmouth men's basketball team will vote on whether it wants to unionize, in yet another step that could further erode the power of the NCAA.

Will college athletes unionize? We'll soon find out
File photo of Dartmouth's Romeo Myrthil, left, and Duke's Caleb Foster, at an NCAA men's college basketball game.
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The Dartmouth College men's basketball team will soon vote on whether it wants to unionize to protect the interest of its players, potentially making it the first unionized team in college sports.

On the surface, this potential deal has tons of money on the table. But if you peel back the layers, it's also just another step toward the erosion of the singular power the NCAA once had as an organization.

It all started when Dartmouth forward Cade Haskins was working at the campus snack bar a few years ago and wanted better pay. He and other students started a union campaign, won an election, and Haskins' pay was eventually bumped up from $13.25 an hour to now $25 an hour.

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NCAA Pres. Charlie Baker says his proposal will help address vast disparities between the wealthiest schools and the hundreds of other NCAA schools.

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The Dartmouth sophomore figured that if he can make change at a campus snack shop, then why not do the same for the basketball team?

On Feb. 5, the National Labor Relations Board responded to a query from Haskins and his teammates, ruling that the players on Dartmouth's men's basketball team are technically employees of the school and are therefore eligible to vote if they want to unionize. If successful, the move would allow them to negotiate pay and health benefits.

Cindi Fukami is a professor of management at the University of Denver, and she's been studying labor unions for decades. 

"It's an interesting situation," she told Scripps News. "You know, the NCAA's power and total control is eroding. It started with athletes [who] own their own images, and we see that here in Colorado."

Fukami is referencing NIL deals that are turning some athletes into millionaires by allowing them to profit off their name, image and likeness. And she says that by unionizing, it gives players even more control over themselves and their futures.

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The new course will look at things like name, image and likeness, and how students can profit off of their own personal brands.

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"It's protection," she added. "And that's one of the things that the labor union can do. It can raise your wages. It can offer you protection for your health."

Then the conversation turns to the issue of money. A basketball team has 10 or so athletes, but a football team has upwards of 100 athletes.

If the unionization vote is approved by Dartmouth's men's basketball team, then what about Alabama's football team, or Arkansas' baseball team? What about women's sports?

Athletes would not only be entitled to negotiating minimum wages, but also unemployment compensation, and all other benefits that fall under union law. That would then affect funding, and according to Fukami, that could potentially harm smaller schools that aren't blessed with enormous donations like their counterparts. 

"There's so much money involved," she said. "That changes everything."