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An earthquake for college sports? Dartmouth basketball union election set for March 5

Updated February 9, 2024 at 6:07 PM ET

The Dartmouth men's basketball team may not be headed for March Madness, but it is headed for something historic: a union election.

This week, a regional officer with the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the team's 15 players are employees of the school and therefore eligible to vote on whether to unionize.

The union election is set to take place on March 5.

If a majority vote yes, the Dartmouth players would become the first unionized team in college sports.

"It's a great privilege to be able to do it," says Cade Haskins, the team's 6-foot-6 forward from Minneapolis. "We hope it encourages other athletes across the country to take action."

A dining hall union drive led to big raises

Haskins' introduction to labor organizing came two years ago when he was working late nights in the campus snack bar. Other undergraduates working in campus dining launched a union campaign, calling themselves the Student Worker Collective at Dartmouth.

"I was kind of just listening, reading all about it, staying informed," says Haskins.

His interest surged as the students won their union election and then through collective bargaining, won COVID sick pay and big raises.

Haskins' wage went from $13.25 an hour to now, as a supervisor, just under $25 an hour.

Taking the union fight to the basketball team

That got him thinking about his basketball teammates and all the time they spend at practice, watching film, lifting weights, and traveling to games on weekends.

"It's easily 30-plus hours a week, honestly," says Haskins.

If he were paid for that time, he thought, he could quit the snack bar as well as his other campus job at the alumni desk and still have money to travel home during breaks and put gas in his car.

Dartmouth forward Cade Haskins (center) stands with SEIU President Mary Kay Henry (in purple blazer) and members of SEIU Local 560, the Dartmouth College Employees' Union. Haskins and his teammates are expected to vote soon on whether to join Local 560.
Dartmouth forward Cade Haskins (center) stands with SEIU President Mary Kay Henry (in purple blazer) and members of SEIU Local 560, the Dartmouth College Employees' Union. Haskins and his teammates are expected to vote soon on whether to join Local 560.

Haskins started reading up on legal issues in college sports and talked to his teammates about what a union would give them: the right to bargain over not just pay but also health benefits.

"Basketball — it's a physical sport, so you know, people get hurt. This year, we've had a lot more injuries than most years," says Haskins, who's suffered labrum tears in his hip and shoulder.

Even though the injuries happened during basketball games and practice, he says Dartmouth did not provide financial support for the additional medical costs.

Unanimous decision to pursue a union

Last September, the 15 players on the men's basketball team came together and signed union authorization cards, pledging their desire to join SEIU Local 560, the union that already represents some Dartmouth employees.

"It's definitely different than the dining workers, but we definitely learned a lot from watching them," says Haskins.

While Dartmouth didn't try to block the dining workers' union, it is challenging the basketball players' efforts to organize.

"Scholars first and athletes second"

At a hearing before the National Labor Relations Board in October, Dartmouth argued that the students are not employees of the college and that their primary focus is learning. The school noted that in line with the Ivy League, it does not give athletic scholarships, and moreover, its basketball program doesn't generate revenue.

"Our guiding principle is that students are scholars first and athletes second," Dartmouth associate vice president for communications Diana Lawrence wrote in a statement.

But Laura Sacks, the NLRB regional director overseeing the hearing, was unpersuaded. She found that the basketball players do perform work that benefits Dartmouth, and that the school exercises a lot of control over that work, hallmarks of an employer-employee relationship.

On Monday, Sacks ruled that the 15 players could go forward with a union election.

A seismic change to college sports

This question — whether college athletes should be paid as employees — has been a hot topic for years, with similar cases playing out at the University of Southern California and elsewhere.

Classifying college athletes as employees would change the nature of college sports completely, says Kenneth Jacobsen, director of the sports law program at Temple Law School.

Jacobsen points out that as employees, college athletes would be entitled to minimum wage, unemployment compensation, and all kinds of other benefits under labor law.

"The money and funding that would be necessary is substantial," he says.

Powerhouses like Michigan or Alabama would end up with the pick of the litter, he warns, while other schools without substantial sports revenue could face program cuts, presenting difficult and complicated choices.

"If programs get cut, they have to be done with an eye towards Title IX," says Jacobsen, citing the federal law that requires equal opportunities for participation for men and women.

Already, a patchwork of state laws governing how college athletes can profit from their name, image and likeness has led to complaints of an unlevel playing field and efforts in Congress to pass national legislation, which so far have been unsuccessful.

An appeal and an impending election

Dartmouth says it will appeal the NLRB ruling and has until February 20 to do so. Regardless, the union election can go forward.

Haskins, who wasn't expecting such a turn of events this week, says he's excited about what's ahead.

"Good thing I was on top of my schoolwork," he says.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.