Dartmouth men’s basketball vote to unionize seen as overdue milestone to college athlete advocates

A Dartmouth Athletics banner hangs outside Alumni Gymnasium on the Dartmouth University campus in Hanover, N.H., Tuesday, March 5, 2024. Dartmouth basketball players vote Tuesday on whether to form a union. (AP Photo/Jimmy Golen)
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By RALPH D. RUSSO

AP College Sports Writer

For those who have led unsuccessful labor movements involving NCAA athletes, the vote by Dartmouth men’s basketball players to unionize felt momentous — even if they are still a long way from forming the first union in college sports.

In a 13-2 vote in a building on the campus in Hanover, New Hampshire, and under supervision of the National Labor Relations Board, players elected to join the Service Employees International Union Local 560 on Tuesday.

“This is definitely a milestone that has been reached. One that we believe should have been reached long ago,” said Ramogi Huma, a longtime advocate for college athletes who helped organize a movement to unionize Northwestern football players a decade ago.

As with Dartmouth basketball, a regional ruling by the NLRB cleared the way for a vote by the Northwestern football team to unionize. However, the votes were impounded and never revealed after the full board in 2015 dismissed the argument that the players were employees of the private Big Ten school.

Rules have changed since, allowing the result of the Dartmouth players’ vote to be made public while the school appeals.

“In issuing her decision, the Regional Director made an unprecedented, unwarranted, and unsupported departure from every applicable Supreme Court, federal court and Board precedent and created a new definition of ’employee’ in a manner that not only exceeded her authority but promises to have significant labor and public policy implications,” the school wrote in its request for a ruling by the full NLRB board.

The case could also end up in federal court.

“I think this is years away from being settled, but it’s going in the right direction,” said Huma, a former UCLA football player and executive director of the National College Players Association.

Huma has had no involvement with the Dartmouth basketball players. His group has filed a separate complaint with the NLRB against Southern California, asking that the school’s football and basketball players be deemed employees.

“The case that we have at USC is stronger because the athletes there get full scholarships. So the fact that athletes at Dartmouth that don’t get scholarships were deemed to be employees, I think it provides strength to our arguments at USC,” Huma said.

The NLRB only has jurisdiction over private employers. Dartmouth and USC are private schools, like Northwestern.

The Dartmouth and USC cases could impact the many public schools in the NCAA, including those that compete at the highest levels of college sports such as Michigan, Alabama, Ohio State, Texas and North Carolina.

The complaint against USC is asking the NLRB to deem those athletes employees of their school, the Pac-12 Conference and the NCAA.

“The private athletic conference would be the jurisdictional hook in a joint employer relationship,” said Marc Edelman, a law professor at Baruch College in New York.

Jason Stahl is the founder and executive director of the College Football Players Association, a group that has also tried to lead organization movements. The former professor at the University of Minnesota made a presentation to Penn State football players in the summer of 2022 he hoped would lead to an association that would eventually negotiate with the Big Ten Conference over things such as working conditions, health care and maybe even compensation.

Those efforts fizzled out.

Stahl said what is most encouraging about the Dartmouth vote is it appears to have been 100% player-led.

“First time we’ve seen this, we’ll see if it produces a wave,” Stahl said. “If Dartmouth basketball players are employees, pretty much all college athletes seem like they’re employees and that could produce some really seismic ramifications not just for college athletics, but also for higher education writ large.”

Huma noted unionizing right now might not be best for college athletes. Despite being dealt a series of setbacks in federal antitrust cases, the NCAA still has the ability to cap compensation for athletes.

There are active antitrust suits challenging the NCAA’s remaining rules limiting the way athletes can be compensated.

“Timelines are important and then letting the dust settle a little bit because these caps need to go away, first and foremost; otherwise what can players negotiate for?” Huma said.

Even if the Dartmouth players’ bid falls short, many believe it is a glimpse into the future of college sports, which is struggling to find structure and stability with mostly unregulated name, image and likeness compensation and unrestricted transfers.

“These players are putting in incredible work days, work weeks for five, six months,” said Dan Hurley, head coach of defending NCAA men’s basketball champion UConn. “I think there’s so much there that’s going to have to be settled if this thing does unionize.”