How Dartmouth College Men’s Basketball Team Formed a Union

Kollman & Saucier
Kollman & Saucier

Dartmouth College is probably not the first educational institution that comes to mind when you think about DI NCAA sports. Nevertheless, the small, private, Ivy League university located in Hanover, New Hampshire is at the forefront of one of the most important issues facing college athletics today.

On March 5, 2024, the fifteen members of the Dartmouth men’s basketball team voted to form a union. They had formed the first union for college athletes.

Dartmouth men’s basketball was not the first team to attempt such a feat. In 2015, members of the Northwestern University football team that received athletic scholarships attempted the very same challenge Dartmouth men’s basketball would achieve nearly a decade later.

Northwestern’s attempt at unionization can be summed up as “wrong place, wrong time.” Northwestern was the only private university competing in the Big Ten Conference. Of the 125 institutions that competed within Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), only seventeen were private.

State-run institutions are required to comply with state labor laws—private institutions are subject to federal labor law and are within the National Labor Relation Board’s (NLRB, or the Board) jurisdiction. The Board believed granting Northwestern football players the right to organize would destabilize labor relations because of its lack of jurisdiction over public universities.

Although the Northwestern football team fell short of the goal line, they certainly can be credited with the assist for Dartmouth’s success. The Board was clear that it was not foreclosing the possibility that college athletes at private universities could unionize—its’ holding applied exclusively to the Northwestern football team.

Armed with the scope-limiting language from Northwestern’s case, the Regional Director (the Director) of the NLRB tackled the question; were the members of the Dartmouth men’s basketball team employees of the university?

In a ground-breaking Decision and Direction of Election, the Director held that the men’s basketball players are employees of Dartmouth. The Director found several key facts weighing in favor of basketball players being classified as employees under the National Labor Relation Act (NLRA, or the Act).

Basketball players perform work that benefits Dartmouth. Although the men’s basketball team operates at a net loss for the university, the team provides benefits that are hard to measure monetarily. For example, the team is asked to interact with alumni, generating alumni engagement and donations, publicity, and prospective student interest.

Furthermore, Dartmouth exercises a significant amount of control over the work the players perform. Athletes at Dartmouth are asked to sign a “Student-Athlete Handbook” containing a summary of key NCAA, Ivy League, and university rules by which they are expected to abide.

Additionally, while the basketball program is limited by NCAA and Ivy League rules, they still have significant leeway within these restrictions. For example, the NCAA bylaws limit athletes to four-hours of required athletic activity a day (and twenty hours a week) while in-season. This is a maximum limit, but the coaching staff can schedule less, if they so choose. Players are also severely limited in their class options to accommodate the team’s practice schedule and are keep on tight schedules (down to the hour) when traveling for games off-campus.

Perhaps the most important finding of the Director was that players receive compensation for their work. The arrangement is not in the form of traditional monetary compensation. In fact, the Ivy League forbids awarding athletic scholarships. Regardless, the Director found numerous other benefits that men’s basketball players at Dartmouth receive that qualify as compensation.

Every season, players receive equipment, apparel, and gear in accordance with their athletic participation. Players receive multiple pairs of shoes valued in excess of $1,000. All players receive two tickets to every away game and four tickets to every home game—valued over $1,200 a year. The university pays for players’ travel expenses to all away games (hotel, food, etc.). The university also provides room and board for members of the team during the six-week winter break period.

The Director found some less obvious examples of compensation. Athletes recruited to play at Dartmouth receive an “early read” of their chances of admission to the uber-competitive school (Dartmouth has an acceptance rate just above 6%), along with their likely financial aid package, prior to graduating high school. For high school athletes, knowing they will be accepted in the prestigious Ivy League school may convince them to forego opportunities of athletic scholarships at other institutions.

Athletes at Dartmouth enjoy the benefits of Dartmouth’s Peak Performance Program. The program offers comprehensive physical, mental, academic, career, life, and wellness coaching and counseling. While many of these benefits are available to the general student population, the Dartmouth Peak Performance Program is better staffed and more individualized than programs available to non-athletes.

Shortly after the Director’s decision was issued, the men’s basketball team voted 13-2 to form a union. Dartmouth College has refused to enter collective bargaining negotiations with the team and have since requested that the full Board reconsider the Regional Director’s Decision and Direction of Election.

It is unlikely that Dartmouth will enter any type of negotiations until the full Board has issued a ruling. If the full Board agrees with the decision of the Regional Director, expect Dartmouth to appeal the case to federal court.

In other words, actual collective bargaining negotiations between a union representing college athletes and a university are likely still years down the road.

Written by Christina Charikofsky. Christina is a summer associate at Kollman & Saucier and a rising third-year student at the University of Baltimore School of Law.


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