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The Rutgers Scarlet Knights huddle before the second round game against the Houston Cougars during the 2021 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament

The Rutgers Scarlet Knights huddle before the second round game against the Houston Cougars during the 2021 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 21, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo: Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

Sanders, Murphy Introduce Legislation to Allow College Athletes to Unionize

"Big time college sports haven't been 'amateur' for a long time, and the NCAA has long denied its players economic and bargaining rights while treating them like commodities," said Sen. Chris Murphy.

Julia Conley

Declaring it "a civil rights issue," Sens. Chris Murphy and Bernie Sanders on Thursday introduced legislation to allow athletes at public and private universities to collectively bargain and form unions within athletic conferences. 

The College Athlete Right to Organize Act (pdf) would formalize the relationship between athletes and schools, where the lawmakers say athletes are "already treated like employees."

"They provide a valuable service in exchange for compensation in the form of scholarships and grants-in-aid that they lose if they do not perform the job as specified by their colleges," Murphy (D-Conn.) and Sanders (I-Vt.) said. "This past year made this distinction even clearer, as college athletes continued to work and perform while their peers often were not on campus."

"This is a matter of basic fairness, but it's also a civil rights issue. The athletes in the most high-profile sports are overwhelmingly Black men and women, while those with the power are largely white."
—Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.)

The legislation comes more than a year and a half after the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) voted to allow student athletes to profit from the use of their name, likeness, and image. The NCAA left it up to its three divisions to craft their own rules regarding compensation. 

Under the new legislation, the lawmakers said, "through the right to organize and collectively bargain, college athletes will no longer have to wait for the NCAA and its members to treat them fairly."

The bill would amend the National Labor Relations Act to define any college athlete who receives direct compensation from their school—through grants, scholarships, or other forms of payment—as an employee, and colleges as employers. 

It would also direct the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to consider the colleges within sports conferences as bargaining units, "helping athletes negotiate across programs and within their respective conferences"—regardless of state labor laws.

The legislation would make it possible for college athletes to bargain over wages, working conditions, and other workers' rights.

"Big time college sports haven't been 'amateur' for a long time, and the NCAA has long denied its players economic and bargaining rights while treating them like commodities," Murphy said in a statement. "Having the right to [collectively bargain] will help athletes get the pay and protections they deserve and forces the NCAA to treat them as equals rather than second-class citizens. It's a civil rights issue, and a matter of basic fairness." 

Murphy wrote about the need for college athletes to be recognized as workers on social media:

The legislation specifically denounces the NCAA for denying "college athletes a fair wage for their labor by colluding to cap compensation."

Murphy and Sanders's bill comes six years after the NLRB rejected an attempt to unionize by football players at Northwestern University. The board did not rule on the players' claim that they should qualify as university employees but rather decided that allowing the team members to unionize would not promote "stability in labor relations."

On Thursday, the NCAA expressed disapproval of the legislation, claiming it would "directly undercut the purpose of college: earning a degree."

"College athletes are workers," said Sanders. "They deserve pay, a union, and to own their own name, image, and likeness. We cannot wait for the NCAA to share its billions with the workers who create it. It is long past time we gave these workers the rights they deserve."

The bill is supported by the AFL-CIO, United Steelworkers, and Advancement of Blacks in Sport.

As Nathan Kalman-Lamb, Derek Silva, and Johanna Mellis wrote Thursday in The Guardian, in addition to ensuring athletes can bargain over their compensation, the ability to unionize would create channels that don't currently exist for student athletes who face abuse and exploitation.

"Unionization would provide a formal channel for bringing forth grievances and, crucially, could protect athletes from reprisal," they wrote. "As WTA pro and former UMass tennis player Brittany Collens said: 'In the worst cases we have sexual assault, physical abuse, and mental abuse permanently ruining athletes' lives. A players' union allows players to say, No, I'm not enduring that. Right now they have zero say over their health and safety. This would change that.'"

In the House, Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), Lori Trahan (D-Mass.), and Andy Levin (D-Mich.) introduced their own version of the legislation.

"College athletes generate billions of dollars for their schools and the NCAA, labor under the strict control of their coaches, withstand intense media scrutiny, and manage a full college course-load, all without being paid. That's unacceptable," said Levin. "The false veil of 'amateurism' cannot continue to cover up exploitation. Giving these student workers the right to organize is a key step to achieving the fair compensation these incredible athletes deserve."

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