A New Day for College Athlete Unions Could Be on the Horizon

College athletes have long been classified as amateurs rather than employees to avoid paying them and granting basic worker rights. A National Labor Relations Board ruling at USC could change that, opening the door to unionization for all college athletes.

USC Trojans guard Bronny James dunks the ball during the college basketball game between the Arizona Wildcats and the USC Trojans on March 9, 2024 at Galen Center in Los Angeles, California. (Brian Rothmuller / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

On March 5, 2024, news broke of Dartmouth College men’s basketball players’ vote, by a count of thirteen to two, to unionize with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 560. Much remains to be adjudicated in that case — Dartmouth has already filed an appeal — but the union victory is a step forward for the rights and working conditions of campus athletic workers.

But another case is advancing across the country in Los Angeles: one filed in 2022 by the National Collegiate Players Association (NCPA) arguing that University of Southern California (USC) football and basketball players have been misclassified as amateurs rather than employees. This case has the potential to revolutionize college athletics, because, unlike Dartmouth, which sets precedent only for private institutions, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which adjudicates union organizing in the United States, is treating USC, the Pac-12 conference it belongs to, and the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) as joint employers, which means that public schools may also be covered under its ruling.

The focus on football and basketball also makes the USC case more easily defensible, given the immense amount of revenue that flows from those sports. If USC high-revenue football and basketball players are found to be employees, so too will all other athletes in those sports in public institutions across the country.

As Senator Bernie Sanders told us about the case, “College sports is big business. College athletes generated almost $16 billion in revenue for colleges and universities in 2019, without being able to negotiate on their own compensation or working conditions. The antidote to this out of control greed is unions.”

Indeed, as of 2022, forty-nine athletic departments generated more than $100,000,000 of revenue, with twenty-two producing more than$150,000,000, and six more than$199,000,000. Yet players receive only scholarships and small stipends, while some thirty-six head football coaches make more than $5 million per year, sixty-six assistant football coaches make more than $1 million, twenty-one strength coaches make more than $500,000, and fifty-one athletic directors make more than $700,000.

The case also gets at an issue fundamental to the exploitative dynamics of college sport. As we document in our forthcoming book, The End of College Football: On the Human Cost of an All-American Game, coercion governs participation in college football. Per observers, the USC case has focused on “how much control USC, the Pac-12, and the NCAA exert over athletes” and “the voluntary nature of college sports.” These are precisely the factors that enable the exploitation of big-time college sport: the $1.2-1.4 billion annual transfer of wealth from (disproportionately black) athletes in five college sports to coaches and athletic department administrators under the subterfuge of amateurism.

Coercion in big-time college sport takes two key forms: status coercion and structural coercion. Status coercion, a concept developed by sociologist Erin Hatton in part to explain the conditions of college sport, means that bosses control the status of workers in contexts where they do not receive compensation, including access to playing time and what they can say in public. When the coach can unilaterally take away a player’s status and opportunity on a team, the coach has absolute control over the player’s work.

Structural coercion refers to the structural pressures that compel people to take opportunities they might not otherwise choose because of socioeconomic constraints that shape and constrain the options available to them. If football is the only ticket to higher education, does the player really have a choice about whether to play? Together, structural and status coercion undermine the capacity for athletes to genuinely consent to the conditions of their participation — meaning, as the NLRB alleges, that players are subject to institutional control and thus are employees.


In our book, former college football players describe their experiences with both forms of coercion in the sport.

One former football player at a university in the “Power Five,” the most prominent college football athletic conferences, explained of status coercion, “a lot of stuff was considered ‘voluntary,’ but if you didn’t do it, you had no chance to play ever. So coaches could levy infinite workloads at you, and you had no choice but to comply or quit.” Another player added that coaches threatened to sabotage players with professional teams if they didn’t follow orders: “‘Oh, you don’t want to play? You don’t want to practice today? Maybe the Ravens scout will like to hear that.’” A third explained, “[The coaches] hold all the power and I just gotta play along unless I want to quit or get kicked off the team.”

Structural coercion also affected the former college football players we spoke to. One of the players we spoke to told us, “Where I come from, bro, that’s one of the main ways you make it, is you play ball. If you don’t play ball, you go work at the factory. You go work at the gas station.”

Another explained that he would never have chosen to play football if he had another pathway to college: “I would have never played football. I would say that’s probably the worst mistake I’ve ever made. . . . If I knew what I knew, I would have never played.”

Similarly, a recently graduated Southeastern Conference (SEC) football player we spoke to for this story explained that his experience was shaped by coercion:

I definitely think that coercion and control are prevalent throughout all levels of the sport. I had an experience where my trainer told me to get rest for an injury/stay off my feet, and a coach told me I had to participate in a team activity later that day if I was really a part of the team. He also said I walked to my room just fine. The team activity was stick ball. Coaches have been allowed to manipulate and coerce athletes for a long time. I bet many would consider it a part of the job.

The USC case, like Dartmouth before it, thus strikes directly at the core of the exploitative dynamics that define big-time college sport and promises a potentially better future for campus athletic workers. Indeed, it may prove momentous for the labor union as a whole.

As Bernie Sanders explained to us, “The future of the labor movement and the future of this country is in the hands of young people. The players at Dartmouth took the historic step forward to unionize and showed young people across the nation that all workers, from autoworkers to baristas to basketball players to graduate students, should be able to organize and bargain for better wages, benefits, and working conditions.”

Jennifer Abruzzo, general counsel of the NLRB, explained what’s at stake in these cases:

My message to academic institutions just in general is stop leading players to believe they’re not employees with protections when they actually are. . . . When you are controlling so many aspects of their daily lives and they are performing services that definitely inure to your bottom line in a significant way . . . treat players the way they should be treated as individuals under your control . . . and respect the rights to which they’re entitled.

Former NLRB chair Mark Gaston Pearce likewise explained to us,

College athletes are taking major risks. Like any other employment relationships, they should have the opportunity to negotiate security in case of injury and negotiate means to fulfill their educational requirements without abuse of work requirements. They should have the opportunity to negotiate the effects of profit hungry plans to consolidate conferences, to switch conferences that will result in teams crisscrossing the continent several times a semester just to play opponents in the same division. Athletes should have some say so in how that affects their lives and livelihood. Also, players, like many Gen Z individuals, have a lot to say about social justice and racial inequities in the workplace, and the schools are the workplaces of these athletes, and the players should be protected by labor laws and union contracts to voice their concerns.

Whether or not universities are listening, players seem to be receiving this message. The former SEC football player told us, “I think it’s definitely a step in the right direction for player rights. . . . I would definitely vote in favor of unionizing after my experience in SEC football.” He’s far from alone.

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Nathan Kalman-Lamb is assistant professor of sociology at the University of New Brunswick. He is a coauthor (with Derek Silva) of The End of College Football: On the Human Cost of an All-American Game (UNC Press, Fall 2024) and cohosts (with Derek Silva and Johanna Mellis) the End of Sport podcast.

Derek Silva is associate professor of sociology and criminology at King’s University College at Western University. He is a coauthor (with Nathan Kalman-Lamb) of The End of College Football: On the Human Cost of an All-American Game (UNC Press, Fall 2024) and cohosts (with Nathan Kalman-Lamb and Johanna Mellis) the End of Sport podcast.

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