College athlete unions: Would they be effective?

February 14, 2024
Concept illustration of a football team with hands raised in the air. Image credit: Nicole Smith, made with Midjourney


The National Labor Relations Board recently ruled that men’s basketball players at Dartmouth College are school employees and ordered a union vote—a first for college sports.

Richard Paulsen
Richard Paulsen

Sports economist Richard Paulsen, assistant professor of sport management at the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology, discusses how unions might look for college athletes.

You’ve said that the union’s biggest collective bargaining tool is the strike, which may not be feasible for college athletes. Would unions be effective?

This definitely would depend upon how the potential unions are structured. The added benefit to athletes from striking would need to exceed the cost of doing so. I see two key reasons why striking may be difficult or potentially ineffective for college athletes. Given that NCAA athletes are restricted in the amount of time they can spend playing, typically to four years, the benefit of any added salary and/or benefits gained from striking is limited. For a senior, a successful strike might only lead to a few weeks or months of added salary and/or benefits. This restricted time also impacts costs. For top athletes, missing games due to a strike could mean fewer opportunities for professional scouts to see them play. Assuming athletes enjoy playing their sport, missing games means lost enjoyment in an already limited NCAA career.

Comparing costs vs. benefits also applies to the party the union is negotiating with. Let’s suppose the union is negotiating with a university. On the costs side, a strike would impact athletic revenues for the university. A strike would also impact public image, which would impact revenues indirectly. On the benefits side, failing to avert or end a strike without concessions would mean wages and benefits would remain below the union’s ask. For some sports at some institutions, missed games due to a strike would be very costly. For most sports at most institutions, this is probably not the case. From this perspective, how the union is structured would certainly matter.

Professional football teams rarely strike, but they still have unions. Couldn’t unions in college football work the same way?

Maybe. If we look at the case of the NFL, the threat of a strike is likely more credible. Unlike in the college setting, there’s no firm limit on the length of playing careers, so the benefit to striking could be greater. That’s not to mention that some benefits a union could negotiate for could extend into retirement for players. As for the harm of a strike to teams and the league, stadiums are typically filled to capacity or come very close to it, and TV viewership is robust, so the cost of missed games is very high.

If unions in college football were organized at the team or conference level, unions consisting of players in Power Conference D-I football programs might be able to function with similar strength to that of the NFL’s Players Association. But I think it is important to note here that most college athletes do not participate in competitions that generate revenues comparable to that of Power Conference D-I college football.

In professional sports, unions include all players in that sport. Is that possible in college sports and if not, how might players be organized into unions? By school? By conference?

This is a very important question. There are many options here—ranging from a huge union consisting of NCAA athletes across levels, sports and institutions, to small unions consisting of athletes in single sports at individual institutions. I don’t believe these unions could be effectively structured in the same manner as in professional sports. There are over 300 schools at the D-I level, and over 1,000 schools if all levels are considered. While athletes among the 32 NFL teams may all have similar needs and wants, it is unlikely that athletes across the over 1,000 NCAA institutions all have similar needs and wants.

Is there any structure that seems more feasible than the rest?

An important consideration in this discussion is Title IX, which prevents institutions receiving federal funding from discriminating based on sex. As this relates to college athletics, schools need to provide equal opportunity based on sex. Without going into too much detail, the equal opportunity piece affects roster sizes, sport offerings and athletic scholarships/financial assistance. A structure that would look comparable to the current professional union structure would be to organize by sport at the conference level. But taking into consideration Title IX, this seems infeasible as each college/university is responsible for complying with Title IX.

What seems more feasible would be for athletes across sports to organize at the college/university level. Some guidance from the Department of Education would be needed to determine what would constitute equal opportunity here. I’m not an expert on Title IX, but a policy that ensures some minimum level of compensation for all athletes while allowing those in sports that generate greater revenues may or may not be possible. A fair question to ask here though is whether all sports are set up to generate similar revenues, which brings us back to the issue of equal opportunity.

Coming back to the effectiveness question, organizing unions at the college/university level would increase the effectiveness of strikes. A strike might not help a rowing team striking alone to negotiate better pay and/or benefits, but a strike that includes rowers and football players would likely be more effective.

The NCAA is tasked with protecting student athletes, but it has backed away from regulating NIL. Who might unions negotiate with if not the NCAA?

Like the Department of Education, I believe the NCAA should play some role in setting an initial framework for what may be allowed, but ultimately I think what is most realistic would be for unions to negotiate individually with the member institutions.

NCAA President Charlie Baker proposed changes that would allow Division 1 schools to pay athletes nonacademic-based compensation. Would this sufficiently protect athletes?

It is hard to say definitively. The proposed changes could be a step in the right direction. Jim Harbaugh made about $10 million in salary and bonuses this past season. I don’t believe a salary of $30,000 for each of his star players is quite what he is calling for in proposing the idea of a union. However, Baker’s plan would likely better comply with Title IX, something Harbaugh may not be considering. While the focus of this discussion has been on compensation, unions negotiate work terms beyond compensation. College athletes may want to negotiate things like work hours and work conditions, to name a few.