Bill Introduced into Congress to Allow College Athletes to Unionize, Become Employees

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured Columnist IVMay 27, 2021

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 9: A generic view of the NCAA National Headquarters before the 2021 NCAA Men's Final Four as seen on March 9, 2021 in Indianapolis, IN. (Photo by Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Sens. Chris Murphy and Bernie Sanders introduced the College Athlete Right to Organize Act, which would classify some college athletes as employees.

"College 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," read a summary of the legislation. "This past year made this distinction even clearer, as college athletes continued to work and perform while their peers often were not on campus."

As employees, collegiate athletes would then have the right to organize and collectively bargain.

After the announcement of the bill, the NCAA issued a statement, saying the legislation "would directly undercut the purpose of college":

Inside the NCAA @InsidetheNCAA

NCAA statement on Murphy-Sanders bill: https://t.co/SsuIHLWEej pic.twitter.com/r8tTFPJwJb

The proposed legislation comes as some states are allowing college athletes to be compensated for their name, image and likeness. Sixteen states have passed such bills, and the laws will go into effect July 1 in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi, New Mexico and South Carolina. 

However, there haven't been any uniform guidelines set by the NCAA or federal legislators, which complicates matters. The Athletic's Nicole Auerbach reported the NCAA Council may discuss the matter at its June meeting with a goal of laying out broad rules.

In August 2015, the National Labor Relations Board declined to formally weigh in when a group of Northwestern football players attempted to classify themselves as employees. The raft of NIL laws is evidence of how much the landscape has changed since then, though.

While not a formal union, some prominent college football stars joined the #WeAreUnited movement to make requests tied to the resumption of action amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trevor Lawrence @Trevorlawrencee

#WeWantToPlay pic.twitter.com/jvQhE7noGB

When it comes to unionizing in college sports, one issue is that most athletes are only at a certain school for three to five years before they graduate or turn professional. As much as Clemson star Trevor Lawrence throwing his support behind #WeAreUnited helped generate attention, for example, his time as a college student effectively ended five months later with the end of the team's season.

Collectively bargaining can also be tough when the dynamics are often different from one sport to the next and from one conference to another.

Under the College Athlete Right to Organize Act, athletes would have the ability to organize at one school or across multiple schools within the same conference.

"They could negotiate for a suite of items, including but not limited to compensation beyond a scholarship and the form of that compensation as well as rules and standards related to their health, safety and educational opportunities," the press release said.