Employment Law

Can College Athletes Unionize?

As college athletes continue to bring substantial revenue to university coffers, the question about the potential of unionizing remains.

As college athletes continue to bring substantial revenue to university coffers, the question about the potential of unionizing remains. The United States Senate introduced a bill to allow college athletes to unionize so they can earn more benefits besides an education. 

Creating Opportunity for Debate

Senators Bernie Sanders and Chris Murphy want to change labor laws so that colleges have to consider working conditions and pay for college athletes. Now, the NCAA and other collegiate athletic associations set schedules for games and practices. However, those schedules often include working conditions that would violate federal standards. 

Many of the cases for unionization involve colleges benefitting from selling apparel with popular college athletes’ names and numbers. Colleges also use their athletes’ names and faces in advertising, which helps them sell tickets to major events. 

Athletes also want to be able to benefit from their own branding opportunities. State legislatures have allowed amateur athletes to earn money from advertising and sponsorships. 

Colleges Say No

Opponents of unionization declare that college students are not employees. They are students working toward earning a degree, and making them employees changes the purpose of attending a university. 

In 2015, the National Labor Relations Board denied a request from football players at Northwestern University. The athletes wanted to unionize, but the federal government said no, as the organization felt that accepting the proposal would change the purpose of college athletics.

However, six years later, the idea of unionizing athletics still exists. College athletes bring in serious amounts of money for universities. When looking at NCAA expenses in 2019, only 19.2% goes to athletic financial aid packages. Coaches received 19.4%. 

If the bill passes, colleges would not pay students minimum wages. Instead, colleges would pay students if they collectively bargained. Teams would have to bargain to negotiate for wages, bonuses, hours, and other working conditions. 

Unionizing for Rights

Another senate bill from 2020 introduced the idea of a College Athletes’ Bill of Rights. Rather than unionizing for wages, this bill’s goal was to address medical expenses and scholarships. 

These unionization bills argued that the NCAA exploits students with unfair labor practices. The senators claim that college athletes should have fair wages, and the NCAA prevents this by capping what students can earn while in college. 

When professional athletes unionize, they get to negotiate with the NFL or MLB. The NCAA does not offer athletes an opportunity to ask questions about their scholarships or off-season activities. For example, college athletes who unionized can ask questions like

  • What happens if I transfer to a different college?
  • How much money do I make when my college sells my jersey?
  • How many hours of practice do I have each week? 
  • Who takes care of my injuries during a game or practice?
  • What coaches can I work with during the off-season?
  • What investigations do I have to cooperate with and why?
  • What amenities do I get if my team gets to an NCAA championship tournament?

Differences in Opportunities

College athletes who want to unionize cite differences between men’s and women’s sports. 

For example, in the baseball and softball NCAA tournaments, teams receive different amenities. Men’s teams receive stipends, posh workout facilities, and reasonable schedules. Women’s teams play at all hours of the day and night, and they have meager workout facilities if they have them at all. 

The facilities and amenities for different divisions also vary significantly. Unionizing could bring better conditions to Division II and III schools as well as to NJCAA schools. 

Despite having many athletic programs, junior colleges often do not have trainers or quality facilities for their athletes. So, injured athletes do not have support from the colleges that ask them to perform. 

Currently, college athletes cannot unionize. But, there could be some hope for the future. 


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