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Dartmouth subject of latest complaint to labor board wanting athletes classified as employees

An unfair labor practice complaint has been filed against Dartmouth contending the school has violated federal law by misclassifying its players as student-athletes.

The complaint was sent Sunday to the National Labor Relations Board by Michael Hsu in his role as head of the College Basketball Players Association (CBPA). In July, Hsu filed a similar complaint against Northwestern in the wake of the hazing scandal regarding former football coach Pat Fitzgerald.

Last week, the Dartmouth men’s basketball team notified the NLRB seeking to unionize. Unionization would allow players to bargain with the school for working conditions and possible terms of employment.

In the one-page complaint, Dartmouth president Sian Leah Bellock is named as the “employer representative.” Service Employees International Union filed the petition seeking to represent the Dartmouth players. 

At heart of the filing is the term “student-athlete,” which was embraced by the NCAA in a 1950s case as an attempt to legally avoid paying workmen’s compensation benefits to the widow of a college football player who died because of his game injuries.

Critics contend that some college players are employees because required work for their team (practice, weight training, meetings, etc.) takes away from their studies. Federal labor law, in this case, only covers private institutions. The Ivy League is made up of eight private schools in the Northeast that play Division I basketball and FCS football.

“That’s where the battleground is now,” Hsu said of the Ivy League. “In the future, I could [file complaints] all today or tomorrow. I don’t want to break government.”

A similar case progressed to the point that, in May, the NLRB filed an unfair labor practice complaint against USC, the Pac-12 and the NCAA. An administrative law trial will decide whether those entities must “cease and desist from misclassifying” football and men’s and women’s basketball players as student-athletes. An administrative law trial is scheduled for as soon as late October, though the case could take years to decide.

When the trial date was set, Tulane law professor told CBS Sports the action “brings us one step closer to the unionization of college athletes.”

A flurry of complaints were expected after NLRB general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo issued a September 2021 memo explaining why athletes should be classified as employees.

In 2015, the NLRB regional director concluded that Northwestern football players were employees, but the NLRB did not take jurisdiction of the case. The regional director at that time, Peter Sung Ohr, is now the NLRB deputy general counsel.

That celebrated Northwestern case only dealt with football players attending private schools. The upcoming trial is much more wide ranging with USC, the Pac-12 and the NCAA being labeled as “joint employers.” That means employee status could conceivably spread throughout the Pac-12 and beyond with USC moving to the Big Ten in 2024.

The fact that Dartmouth players have initiated the action could fast-track resolution with the NLRB. The Student Workers Collective at Dartmouth was recognized as a union by the school last year.

Hsu also told Sportico.com that he thought athletes should be included in the SAG-AFTRA entertainment union because they appear in game broadcasts and in video games. he specifically mentioned a push by reality TV star Bethenny Frankel of “The Real Housewives of New York City” to unionize.

In that sense, college players would be able to earn residual payments for being reality TV stars.

The next step in the Dartmouth complaint is for the NLRB to respond in the next few weeks to Hsu’s latest complaint.

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