June 18, 2024

A federal official said Monday that members of the Dartmouth men’s basketball team were university employees, clearing a path for the team to take a vote that could make it the first unionized college sports program in the country.

In a statement, the National Labor Relations Board’s regional director in Boston, Laura Sacks, said that because Dartmouth had “the right to control the work” of the team and because the team did that work “in exchange for compensation” like equipment and game tickets, the players were employees under the National Labor Relations Act.

A date for the election on whether to unionize has not yet been set, and the result would need to be certified by the N.L.R.B. The university and the N.C.A.A. are expected to appeal the director’s decision.

In September, all 15 players on the team’s varsity roster signed and filed a petition to the labor board to unionize with the Service Employees International Union. On Oct. 5, Dartmouth’s lawyers responded by arguing that the players did not have the right to collectively bargain because, as members of the Ivy League, they received no athletic scholarships and because the program lost money each year.

The N.C.A.A. and its member schools have long resisted unionization attempts by college athletes, defending the student-athlete model that has come under fire by labor activists, judges and elected officials over the years.

In 2014, the Northwestern football team led the highest-profile attempt by a college program to unionize, arguing that because the players were compensated through scholarships, they had the right to bargain collectively.

In a ruling similar to Monday’s, a regional director of the labor board stated that the Northwestern scholarship players were university employees, and a union election was held. But the sealed ballots were ultimately destroyed after the five-member N.L.R.B. ruled in August 2015 that the players did not have the right to collectively bargain.

The environment surrounding labor rights in collegiate athletics has shifted since then.

“So much has changed in the enterprise of college athletics,” said Jason Stahl, the founder and executive director of the College Football Players Association, which promotes the unionization efforts of college football players.

In 2021, the Supreme Court ruled that the N.C.A.A.’s ban on compensation for college athletes violated antitrust law, forcing the N.C.A.A. to allow athletes to profit off their own name, image and likeness. Realignment has scrambled the traditional geographic bounds of conferences, increasing travel times for players in leagues that will soon stretch from the West Coast to the East Coast.

Support for unions more broadly is also higher today than in 2015, according to available polling.

Michael LeRoy, a professor and sports labor expert at the University of Illinois, said he expected an election to be held at Dartmouth, in which votes would not be revealed, before the N.L.R.B. issued its final ruling.

Mr. LeRoy also noted that the current N.L.R.B., under President Biden, had signaled more support for unionization efforts among college athletes than the one under President Barack Obama during the Northwestern union drive.

In September 2021, Jennifer A. Abruzzo, the general counsel of the board, said college athletes should be considered employees under federal labor law, citing the Supreme Court’s ruling that year that college sports was a profitable enterprise, and argued that classifying them simply as “student-athletes” would lead to a “chilling effect” on organization efforts at collegiate programs.

“This particular labor board has been very transparent about its view that at least some college athletes are, in effect, employees,” Mr. LeRoy said. “That was not the case in 2014.”