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NLRB Holds That College Basketball Players Are 'Employees'

    Client Alerts
  • February 09, 2024

This week, the regional director for Region 1 of the National Labor Relations Board issued an opinion that could usher in a wave of unionization efforts among college athletes. Fifteen members of the Dartmouth men’s basketball team filed a petition to form a bargaining unit. The university argued that the basketball players were not "employees" within the meaning of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and were not, therefore, entitled to form a union. The regional director disagreed and found that the players were employees within the meaning of the NLRA.

The regional director applied prior precedent from a 2016 ruling that employment “generally requires that the employer have the right to control the employee’s work, and that that work be performed in exchange for compensation.” The director found that, despite the lack of evidence about the program’s profitability, the players perform work that benefits Dartmouth, including generating alumni engagement as well as student interest and applications. Dartmouth also exercises significant control over the players’ work, including through rules contained in a student-athlete handbook and the scheduling of practices, games, and travel. Lastly, even though the Ivy League awards no athletic scholarships, the regional director found that the players still received nontraditional compensation in the form of free basketball shoes, tickets to games, meals, and lodging.

If upheld following appeal, the regional director’s decision could embolden more college athletes to pursue unionization even in the absence of lucrative scholarships or a highly profitable program. The decision could also result in great inconsistencies across college athletics. Public institutions are not covered by the NLRA so their players would not be entitled to legal protections for union efforts. In contrast, like the players at Dartmouth, those attending private institutions could decide to pursue collective bargaining.

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