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In bid to shake up college sports, Dartmouth men’s basketball team seeks to form union

The Baker Memorial Library on Dartmouth's Hanover campus.
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Wikimedia Commons
The Baker Memorial Library on Dartmouth's Hanover campus.

Members of the Dartmouth College men’s basketball team filed a petition this week seeking recognition as a labor union which, if granted, would be the first student-athlete union in the country.

On Wednesday, the local chapter of the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, filed a petitionwith the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of 15 Dartmouth players, noting that a significant number of the team sought recognition.

In 2014, Northwestern University’s football squad sought recognition as a union, but the NLRB ultimately denied the request, while punting on deciding if the school’s scholarship athletes should be classified as university employees.

It isn’t clear what prompted Dartmouth’s athletes to seek unionization, or what they would advocate for through a collectively bargained contract. The SEIU didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Dartmouth College issued a statement saying the school has “the utmost respect for our students and for unions generally. We are carefully considering this petition with the aim of responding promptly yet thoughtfully in accordance with Dartmouth’s educational mission and priorities.”

The basketball team’s efforts come following a wave of successful unionizing efforts on Dartmouth’s campus. Earlier this year, the school’s dining hall workers negotiateda $21 per hour wage through collective bargaining. Employees at the college’s libraryvoted to form a union in June, just months after Dartmouth graduate students voted to organize.

But student-athletes could face a steeper climb, given the NCAA’s previous resistance to unionization and opposition to classifying student-athletes as employees. There are already several other ongoing lawsuits involving the classification of student athletes at schools across the country, according to Michael McCann, director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at UNH’s Franklin Pierce School of Law.

McCann says Dartmouth’s organizing efforts came as a surprise, given that its teams, which compete in the Division 1 Ivy League for athletics, don’t generate the same level of viewership or money for their university as higher profile teams that fill 100,000-seat stadiums.

“I don't know if the argument is as good at Dartmouth as it might be at, say, a school in a Power Five conference where the obligations on the athlete are likely more extensive,” said McCann. “But clearly there's an argument that college athletes in general at D-1 schools are employees.”

Dartmouth athletes are also not eligible for athletic scholarships as members of the Ivy League, which could complicate the argument they are employed by the school, McCann notes. He adds that work-study students who sell concessions at a university sporting event could be classified as employees of a school and therefore subject to collective bargaining, while the players on the field have been traditionally barred from organizing.

The NLRB is requiring Dartmouth College to respond to the petition by Sept. 25 with a hearing set for Oct. 3 if the two sides don’t voluntarily agree to an election.

While those deadlines are fast approaching, McCann says the larger issue of student-athlete organizing is likely to take much longer to hammer out.

“All of this stuff is subject to multiple levels of appeal, and it will take years to play out,” he says.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University. He can be reached at tbookman@nhpr.org.
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