NLRB regional official decides Dartmouth men's basketball players are employees of the school

A National Labor Relations Board regional official has decided that Dartmouth basketball players are employees of the school, clearing the way for an election that would create the first-ever labor union for NCAA athletes.

All 15 members of the Dartmouth men’s basketball team signed a petition in September asking to join Local 560 of the Service Employees International Union, which already represents some other employees at the Ivy League school in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Unionizing would allow the players to negotiate not only over salary but working conditions, including practice hours and travel.

“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, I find that the petitioned-for basketball players are employees within the meaning of the (National Labor Relations) Act,” NLRB Regional Director Laura Sacks ruled.

The NCAA and universities across the country have been steadfast in insisting that their athletes are students, not employees. College sports leaders have even lobbied Congress for a federal law that would codify that classification as the NCAA faces a federal lawsuit in Pennsylvania on the subject.

The school can still appeal the regional director’s decision to the national board; that’s what happened when members of the Northwestern team held a union election in 2014. In case of appeal, the ballots would be impounded pending a ruling. An election can be held while an appeal is pending. All 15 members of the team have already indicated a desire to unionize.

The Northwestern ballots were destroyed after the NLRB, which only governs private employers, decided that allowing the players at the only private school in the Big Ten Conference would skew the labor market in the conference. It did not address the question of whether the players were employees. All eight Ivy League schools are private.

There is also a complaint before a different NLRB body in California that claims football and basketball players at Southern California should be deemed employees of the school, the Pac-12 Conference in which they play and the NCAA. That hearing is ongoing.

During a four-day hearing in October, Dartmouth argued that the players shouldn’t be considered employees because athletics are part of the academic mission of the school, like performing in the orchestra or even playing club sports.

“At Dartmouth, students’ primary objective is learning,” school attorney Joe McConnell said then. “Dartmouth has adopted policies reflecting that students who participate in intercollegiate athletics are students first and athletes second.”

The college also said the men’s basketball program loses money. Attorneys for the players countered that the school’s numbers leave out important and lucrative revenue streams that the basketball team contributes to.

What’s more, the players say it’s not whether the team turned a profit: What matters is if the program brings in revenue, and also whether coaches have control over the players.


AP College Sports Writer Ralph D. Russo contributed.


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