The College Athlete Right To Organize Act Is Back: Reintroduced To Encourage And Simplify Student-Athlete Unionization After Reclassification To University Employee Status

December 07, 2023

By Gregg E. Clifton and Christina Stylianou

In a clear move to further National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) General Counsel's Jennifer Abruzzo's stalled efforts to reclassify student-athletes as employees under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”), Senators Chris Murphy (D-CT), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have reintroduced the College Athlete Right to Organize Act (“CARO”), a bill that seeks to modify student-athletes’ current status so they are deemed employees of their college or university and would specifically empower athletes to form unions. 

While the members of the Dartmouth College men’s basketball team anxiously await the decision of NLRB Region 2's Regional Director regarding their requisite status as employees before their union petition for an NLRB-sponsored election seeking to be represented by the Service Employees International Union can be processed, CARO would specifically amend the NLRA to formally classify college athletes as employees.

The passing of CARO would result in the following changes to the NLRA:

  • The NLRA would be amended to define any college athlete as an employee of their college if they receive direct compensation from their college, whether in the form of grant-in-aid or other forms of compensation, and such compensation requires participation in intercollegiate sports. This would clarify athletes’ employment status and right to collectively bargain. 
  • The NLRA would be amended to re-define public colleges, alongside private institutions, as employers within the context of intercollegiate sports, allowing athletes to collectively bargain at any college, regardless of state laws that restrict their basic labor rights.
  • Multiemployer bargaining units for college athletes would be encouraged by directing the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to consider all the colleges within an athletic conference as part of one bargaining unit, helping athletes negotiate across programs and within their respective conferences.
  • The NLRB would be able to assert jurisdiction over all institutions of higher education within the context of intercollegiate athletics, and on all collective bargaining and representation matters as well as labor disputes, enabling college athletes to petition the NLRB to handle any issues that may arise in the process of collective bargaining.  
  • Any agreements, such as scholarship agreements, that contain language that would waive the right of athletes to collectively bargain would be explicitly prohibited.  
  • College athletes’ current tax status, with respect to scholarships and other benefits, including eligibility for financial aid, would be protected and remain the same, despite the change in employment status.

This reclassification of their status would eliminate the question of whether student-athletes are employees under the NLRA and establish their employee status. Ultimately, this designation would give student athletes the same rights as any employee in the United States covered by the NLRA.

Commenting on the reintroduced CARO, Senator Murphy stated, “College athletes will no longer have to wait for the NCAA and its members to treat them fairly. Rather, the athletes can finally have their voices and interests heard across the myriad of issues that affect their lives. The right to collectively bargain will finally secure college athletes’ seat at the table and give them the power to negotiate for fair and equitable compensation, protections on their health and well-being, and better academic opportunities, among other issues that affect their lives.”