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Five quick thoughts on the NLRB Dartmouth Men's Basketball ruling

Unionization may finally be coming to Big Time college sports. And maybe Medium Time too.

Good evening, and thank you for your continued support of Extra Points.

In a world where it feels like every day brings a new lawsuit, conference realignment rumor or potential existential threat to college sports, it can be hard to tell when actual bombshell news drops.

But on Monday afternoon…I’d say something qualified.

The Boston Regional Office of the National Labor Relations Board issued a massive ruling…the players for the Dartmouth men’s basketball team should be considered university employees under US law, and thus, eligible to hold a union election.

Dartmouth immediately announced they will appeal the ruling, so the final legal battle over this specific basketball team isn’t over. It also isn’t the first time a regional NLRB office found that at athletes at a D-I college athletic program should be classified as employees, an effort that eventually failed in 2015.

But a lot has changed since 2015. What appeared as a quixotic campaign back in 2015 is now virtually mainstream not just among academics and reporters…but among coaches and administrators. It’s hard to find anybody working in college sports who doesn’t think at least some athletes should be eventually classified as employees.

This is obviously a quickly developing story, and I want more time to continue to make calls and digest everything. But after reading the full ruling and talking to a few folks, here are a few of my biggest questions and takeaways.

Holy cow this could apply to a lot of people

Dartmouth's men’s basketball is an interesting test case for athlete unionization. For one, they’re not very good. The Big Green haven’t finished above .500 since the 1998 season, and they haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1958. This year’s squad is currently 5-14, good for 337 in KenPom.

Even with D-I membership, Dartmouth men’s basketball isn’t what one typically thinks about when they ponder Big Time College Sports. The TV revenue generated by Ivy League broadcasts is minimal. The official NCAA attendance numbers suggest Dartmouth, who averaged less than 700 fans a game last season, is less of a box office draw than a very good high school basketball game. The players aren’t even on athletic scholarship! In many ways, Dartmouth basketball is probably closer to Case Western Reserve than Ohio State.

And yet, according to the NLRB, none of that really matters. From the ruling:

…While there is some factual dispute as to how much revenue is generated by the men’s basketball program, and whether that program is profitable, the profitability of any given business does not affect the employee status of the individuals who perform work for that business…

This is a point I’ve tried to hammer home in this newsletter, but one that I don’t think is completely understood by many fans. The law does not care how much revenue something generates, or even if it is profitable at all. That is not what determines employee status.

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