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Senate Democrats introduce bill to allow college athletes to unionize

In Washington and across the country, lawmakers are pushing to expand the rights of college athletes, pressuring the NCAA to allow students to get paid. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

A new bill from congressional Democrats would allow college athletes to unionize, making it possible for students from across universities to band together to form unions within athletic conferences.

The bill from Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) would rewrite federal labor law to define all college athletes receiving scholarships and other pay as employees of both public and private universities — which would be a significant reimagining of the college sports landscape.

It would open a door to athletes receiving additional compensation from colleges by bargaining over wages, working conditions, revenue sharing agreements and other rights afforded to employees.

The bill, called the College Athlete Right to Organize Act, is unlikely to pass in the current Congress, which has shown little appetite for such legislation. A companion bill introduced by three House Democrats also has not found any Republican co-sponsors.

But it represents another shift in what has become a fast-evolving landscape: the debate over college athletes’ rights and their treatment by schools and the NCAA.

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In the past two years, state legislatures have rushed to permit athletes to earn money from the use of their personal brands by appearing in advertisements or signing sponsorship deals.

The state legislation, as well as a pending case on similar matters in front of the Supreme Court, forced the hand of the NCAA, which has long argued that college athletes should be barred from earning money for their labor. And it also has created substantial momentum in Congress to pass federal legislation that would set a single standard across states for how athletes can earn income, rather than a patchwork of conflicting state laws.

Republicans and Democrats support some form of a “name, image and likeness” bill, though there is still a significant gap between the parties about how broad the legislation should be.

In a statement Thursday, Sanders linked the right of athletes to form a union to the fight to earn money through their personal brands.

“College athletes are workers. They deserve pay, a union, and to own their own name, image, and likeness. We cannot wait for the NCAA to share its billions with the workers who create it,” he said. “It is long past time we gave these workers the rights they deserve.”

The NCAA put out a statement condemning the bill Thursday. “College athletes are students and not employees of their college or university. This bill would directly undercut the purpose of college: earning a degree.” The organization said it was committed to “modernizing name, image and likeness rules.

“But turning student-athletes into union employees is not the answer,” the NCAA said.

While there is some chance that a name, image and likeness bill could garner bipartisan support in Congress, the bill from Sanders and Murphy will face much steeper odds.

In 2015, an attempt by football players at Northwestern to form a union was dismissed by the National Labor Relations Board, which adjudicates labor disputes. The federal board chose, essentially, not to rock the boat, acknowledging that allowing athletes to unionize would have broad impacts on the landscape of college sports.

But college athletics have shifted substantially in recent years, and Sanders and Murphy’s bill is a sign that eventually, the right to form a union — and, as employees, to potentially earn pay or share in the revenue they earn — may become another central focus of the college athletes’ rights movement.

A congressional aide said the bill would not make athletes subject to minimum wage laws, and colleges would only be legally required to pay them if they agreed to it in collective bargaining. It would “open the door,” the aide said, to “bargain with their colleges or across colleges within a conference to negotiate things like better pay via sharing the revenues they produce.”

Last year, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) introduced a bill called the College Athletes’ Bill of Rights, which would address athletes’ medical expenses and extend scholarships in addition to increasing their earning power.

Sanders and Murphy’s bill targets the NCAA, which oversees college sports, arguing that “college athletes face exploitative and unfair labor practices by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.”

The NCAA and its members, the bill says, “have denied college athletes a fair wage for their labor by colluding to cap compensation.”

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