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NLRB district official rules Dartmouth men’s basketball players are school employees

A district official with the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that Dartmouth basketball players are employees of the school, clearing the way for an election that would form the first 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 represents several other employees at the Ivy League school in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Unionization would allow players to bargain not only on salary but also on working conditions, including training hours and travel.

“Because Dartmouth has the right to control the work performed by the Dartmouth men’s basketball team and the players perform this work for compensation, I find that the petitioned basketball players are employees within the meaning of the (National Labor Relations).” NLRB Regional Director Laura Sacks ruled.

The NCAA and universities across the country have insisted that their athletes be students, not employees. College sports leaders have even lobbied Congress for a federal law that would regulate this classification, as the NCAA faces a federal lawsuit over the issue in Pennsylvania.

The school may still appeal the district superintendent’s decision to the national board; That’s what happened when members of the Northwestern football team held a union election in 2014. In case of appeal, ballot papers would be seized until the decision was made. An election can be made while the objection is ongoing. All 15 members of the team have already expressed a desire to unionize.

The Northwest ballots were destroyed after the NLRB, which governs only private employers, ruled that allowing football players to attend the only private school in the Big Ten Conference would skew the labor market in the conference. The question of whether the players were employees was not addressed. All eight Ivy League schools are private.

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

During a four-day hearing in October, Dartmouth argued that players should not be considered employees because athletics are part of the school’s academic mission, such as performing in the orchestra and even playing club sports.

“The primary purpose of students at Dartmouth is to learn,” said school attorney Joe McConnell. “Dartmouth has adopted policies that reflect that students participating in intercollegiate athletics are students first and athletes second.”

The college also said the men’s basketball program was losing money. Lawyers for the players countered that the school’s figures did not include the important and lucrative revenue streams contributed by the basketball team.

What’s more, players say it’s not a matter of whether the team makes a profit: What matters is whether the program generates revenue and also whether coaches have control over the players.

AP College Sports Writer Ralph D. Russo contributed.

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