Are student athletes employees?

Alan Cai

February 9, 2024

The National Labor Relations Board(NLRB), an independent government agency tasked with enforcing labor relations, ruled earlier this week that Dartmouth’s mens’ basketball team players can be considered university employees. The players now have the right to unionize and will vote on it on March 5th. If the majority threshold is reached, the unionization will mark the first time a United States college team has ever done so.

Student athlete rights have long been a subject of intense debate for many years. College students playing sports, especially Division I athletes, argue that the long hours spent practicing and playing(some players spending as many as forty hours a week) entitle them to some form of compensation and worker’s rights. Key potential sticking points on the negotiating table were workers to unionize include medical benefits, financial compensation, and increased leeway for sponsorship deals. The National Collegiate Athletics Association(NCAA) , which serves as the premiere amateur college league in the United States, has allowed collegiate athletes to monetize their name, image, and likeness(NIL) in compliance with Supreme Court ruling NCAA v. Alston(2021). Although they still can not receive compensation from their respective schools, they are able to generate revenue through sponsorship deals as long as they follow state laws and NCAA regulations.

Student athletes and supporters advocating for conferred employee status additional observe that colleges do benefit from the labor of student athletes and team organizations wield tremendous power over their players including but not limited to the courses they may take or majors they may declare.

Opponents of athlete-employeeship argue that since athletes are primarily scholars at the institution and secondarily sports participants, they are not classified as employees. They add that college sports are intended to be an amateur activity and adding players to the payroll will undermine the institution. Furthermore, many colleges claim that their athletics departments or individual sports teams do not gain any profit themselves so the added burden of paying players would place undue strain on the system. It is also often noted that some athletes are already indirectly compensated through athletic scholarships and education.

The debate over whether or not college athletes are part of a growing national debate on what it means to be an employee and what rights they ought to attain. Many other sectors, including participants in the gig economy, are visiting potential employee status and rights. Other industries such as the automobile and entertainment industry have recently seen strikes regarding worker’s rights and compensation. The student-athlete debate may continue for many more years but may fuel a dramatic shift on college campuses in the coming years.