What Dartmouth basketball’s union vote means for college sports: U-M experts can discuss

March 5, 2024
Concept illustration of a basketball union. Image credit: Nicole Smith, made with Midjourney


The Dartmouth men’s basketball team’s historic vote to unionize today sounds a death knell for the NCAA’s long-standing model of athlete amateurism, which is already on its last legs.

For the first time ever, college athletes have the right to bargain for things like pay, time off, health benefits, etc. University of Michigan experts are available to comment on what the decision means for college sports and student athletes.

Kathy Babiak
Kathy Babiak

Kathy Babiak, professor of sport management at the School of Kinesiology and director of the Michigan Center for Sport and Social Responsibility, can discuss the student athlete experience and identity, particularly the conflict and associated stress many student athletes experience between their athlete and student roles. She can also address the adoption and diffusion of practices and structures in collegiate athletics and other contexts, which may have implications for the spread of unions.

Her main line of research focuses on sport and social impact. In this area, Babiak explores how organizations devise social responsibility strategies to maximize the value and benefit to both organizations and to society.

Contact: kbabiak@umich.edu

Chris Rider
Chris Rider

Chris Rider is a professor of entrepreneurial studies at the Ross School of Business. His research examines the reciprocal relationship between entrepreneurship and societal inequality. He also researches racial disparities in professional and amateur sports.

“This debate highlights an issue that is central in all organizations: What is an equitable balance between members’ contributions and the inducements the organization offers them to contribute?” Rider said. “Regardless of the vote result or subsequent legal outcomes, some form of this question will continue to be asked in athletic departments across the country—just as it is in other organizations.”

Contact: riderci@umich.edu

Richard Paulsen
Richard Paulsen

Richard Paulsen is a sports economist and assistant professor of sport management at the School of Kinesiology. His research focuses on labor market issues in sport, with a focus on factors influencing athlete productivity, including contracts. Paulsen said the effectiveness of college player unions is questionable since the union’s most powerful collective bargaining tool is the strike, which may not be feasible for college athletes.

“I see two key reasons why striking may be difficult or potentially ineffective for college athletes,” he said. “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.”

Q&A on unions: College athlete unions: Would they be effective?

Contact: rpaulsen@umich.edu