Not All Fun and Games? College Athletes May Soon Drive a Hard Bargain With Union Support

CDF Labor Law LLP

On May 27, 2021, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) introduced the College Athlete Right to Organize Act seeking to provide collective bargaining rights for college athletes.  Specifically, the bill seeks to amend the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to define any college athlete as an employee, if they receive any direct compensation (inclusive of scholarships and other forms of financial aid).

Prior efforts by college athletes to unionize have not been successful.  Notably, in August 2015, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) blocked an attempt by Northwestern University football players to create their own union.  Other efforts have been advanced by legislators in the last few years, always arguing that the multibillion-dollar business model of big-time college sports favors the institutions while seemingly taking advantage of college athletes.  Because of the revenue being generated by big-time college athletics, as well as the significant salaries being paid to many coaches, the pressure to better financially reward revenue-sport athletes for their time and effort remains strong.  This pressure, combined with the Biden Administration’s strong support for unions helps promote the movement to create ways in which college athletes are treated more like employees, including by providing them with the right to organize and bargain with the universities and the NCAA.

The new bill seeks to change the dynamic of big-time college sports, by ensuring that those college athletes who already receive money through a scholarship or other financial aid gain the ability to bargain for changes in compensation, hours, healthcare benefits, pension plans, for autonomy when it comes to academic decisions, etcetera.  In response to the bill, a spokeswoman for the NCAA provided a statement that reaffirmed the association's stance that college athletes are students, not employees, and that the proposed legislation would "undercut the purpose of college: earning a degree."  College athletics are very popular in our country and many people have strong feelings about how college athletes should be treated.

It remains to be seen whether or not this bill will make it out of the current Congress.  Either way, academic institutions, and the NCAA, can expect more and more of these efforts to garner steam in the next few years, both at the legislative and administration level.  With a soon to be Democratic-majority NLRB, should such a bill pass, the implications could be far reaching.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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