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Dartmouth basketball team votes to join the first college athletics union


By Chris Isidore, CNN

New York (CNN) — Members of the Dartmouth College men’s basketball team Tuesday became the first college athletes to vote to join a union, a significant milestone in the rapidly changing business for collegiate sports.

The team members voted 13-2 in favor of the union, according to the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees union representation votes for private employers.

The affirmative vote does not automatically mean that there will be a union for members of the the team. Dartmouth has already indicated it will appeal the decision by the NLRB to recognize the players as employees who are eligible to join a union.

“We have productive relationships with so many unions. We believe our athletes are students,” Dartmouth President Sian Beilock told CNN’s Poppy Harlow in an interview last month. “We don’t give athletic scholarships. We are student-athletes here, and we believe our students should be thought of in that way.”

But a regional director of the NLRB ruled that the players are employees because Dartmouth “has the right to control the work performed by the Dartmouth men’s basketball team, and the players perform that work in exchange for compensation.”

That compensation includes “room and board for part of the year, equipment, apparel, tickets to both home and road games, footwear, access to nutrition and medical professionals, exclusive use of certain facilities, and academic support,” according to the NLRB regional director’s findings.

Tuesday’s vote is a significant one, with the potential to greatly reshape the landscape of college sports in America, especially in the two sports that produce the most revenue – football and basketball.

Together the 352 schools that play in Division I conferences reported that those two sports alone produced revenue of $7.9 billion during the last school year, according to data compiled by the Department of Education. Overall Division I athletics generated nearly $17.5 billion in revenue in 2022, according to a National Collegiate Athletic Association report.

Dartmouth basketball makes just a fraction of the revenue of the major sports powerhouses. Figures the school filed with the Department of Education show the men’s basketball program brought in $1.3 million in revenue, although a Dartmouth spokesperson said that figure includes support it receives from the school’s general budget. In testimony before the NLRB, it reported a much lower number for basketball revenue of $458,000.

Changing attitudes on paying college athletes

The idea of union representation for college athletes was endorsed by a coach at least one major sports powerhouse. In a press conference soon after winning the college football championship, then-University of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said it was time for athletes to get a share of the wealth being produced by college sports, and that unions would be the way for that to happen. Michigan reported football revenue of $131 million in the most recent year to the Department of education.

“And it’s long past time to let the student-athletes share in the ever-increasing revenues. I mean, it’s billions,” said Harbaugh, who has since taken a coaching position in the NFL. “And there needs to be a voice for the young people, the student-athletes. Right now there is no voice… I have nothing against unions. That’s the next step, fellas. I think that’s the way you’ve gotta go. That’s what I’d like to see change in college athletics.”

But the NCAA has long sought to prohibit students from receiving any compensation for athletics, other than scholarships and some modest stipend money. But the Supreme Court opened the door for greater compensation for student athletes in 2021 when it ruled unanimously that NCAA rules prohibiting compensation to student athletes violated antitrust laws.

Unions cheer the win

“Today is a big day for our team. We stuck together all season and won this election,” said a statement issued by Cade Haskins and Romeo Myrthil, two leaders of the unionizing effort and juniors on the team. “It is self-evident that we, as students, can also be both campus workers and union members.”

“Dartmouth seems to be stuck in the past. It’s time for the age of amateurism to end,” they continued. “Let’s work together to create a less exploitative business model for college sports. Over the next few months, we will continue to talk to other athletes at Dartmouth and throughout the Ivy League about forming unions and working together to advocate for athletes’ rights and well-being.”

The Dartmouth basketball team has its final game of the 2023-2024 season Tuesday night at home versus Harvard University. The team will end the season in last place in the Ivy League with a 5-21 record, including a nine-game losing streak going into the game. But its vote was being praised by union leaders, including Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, the union the players voted to join.

“These young men will go down as one of the greatest basketball teams in all of history. The Ivy League is where the whole scandalous model of nearly free labor in college sports was born and that is where it is going to die,” she said. “But this victory is about way more than sports, it’s about people who need a union getting one – whether it’s baristas at Starbucks, airport workers, drivers with Uber and Lyft, or student employees.”

Professional sports is one of the most heavily unionized sectors in the US economy, with most pro athletes in the four major team sports – football, basketball, baseball and hockey – being members of unions. They are among the best paid union members in the country.

While the pay level of most professional athletes is negotiated between the teams and the players or their agents, not the union, the unions and the leagues agree on contracts that set the terms of the negotiations and make the multi-million dollar contracts possible.

Professional athletes in one of the four major North American sports leagues make a minimum salary of between $740,000 a year in baseball to $1.1 million a year in the National Basketball Association, assuming they stay on a roster of one of those teams for an entire season.

“The Major League Baseball Players Association applauds the Dartmouth men’s basketball players for their courage and leadership in the movement to establish and advance the rights of college athletes,” said Tony Clark, the union’s executive director. “These athletes have an unprecedented seat at the table and a powerful voice with which to negotiate for rights and benefits that have been ignored for far too long.”

Colleges and universities have been a hotbed of union organizing in recent years, as students who have a variety of jobs, from teaching and research assistants to working in food services and residence halls, have voted to form unions.

The NLRB reports that more than 40,000 students belong to unions that have been formed in just the last two years. The AFL-CIO confirms that colleges and universities have seen more union member growth through organizing votes than any other sector of the US economy.

This story has been updated with additional reporting and context.

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