Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), along with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), introduced a new bill Thursday that would define scholarship college athletes as employees of their universities, thereby granting them the right to collectively bargain.
For Murphy, the bill is the latest in a series of initiatives to improve conditions for college athletes — an effort he has described as “a civil rights issue.” In 2019, Murphy released a three-part report on what he sees as injustices in colleges sports, and this past February he introduced a bill that would let current and prospective college athletes profit off their name, image and likeness.
This new bill would go a step further, amending the National Labor Relations Act to define college athletes as employees of their schools, with their scholarships considered compensation. This would allow athletes to collectively bargain for wages and other working conditions.
The bill, called the College Athletes Right to Organize Act, argues that college athletes “exhibit the markers of employment as established under the common law definition of the term ‘employee.’”
“They perform a valuable service for their respective colleges under a contract for hire in the form of grant-in-aid agreements; these agreements assert significant control over how athletes perform their work and the conditions under which they work; and they receive compensation in the form of grant-in-aid and stipends in exchange for their athletic services,” it reads.
Murphy, in a statement, said the NCAA “has long denied its players economic and bargaining rights while treating them like commodities.”
“Having the right to [bargain] will help athletes get the pay and protections they deserve and forces the NCAA to treat them as equals rather than second-class citizens,” Murphy said. “It’s a civil rights issue, and a matter of basic fairness.”
The idea of college athletes organizing to collectively bargain already has some history. In 2014, football players at Northwestern University signed union cards announced their intent to organize, with quarterback Kain Colter calling the NCAA “almost like a dictatorship.” A National Labor Relations Board regional director initially affirmed the players’ status as employees, but the national board later declined to exert its jurisdiction, ending the union effort.
The bill introduced by Murphy and Sanders, with support from Reps. Jamaal Bowman, Andy Levin and Lori Trahan in the U.S. House of Representatives, would open a path for athletes nationwide to follow through on what Northwestern players attempted.
“College athletes are workers,” Sanders said in a statement. “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. It is long past time we gave these workers the rights they deserve.”
In a statement, the NCAA pushed back on the categorization of college athletes as employees.
“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. “We will continue to work with members of Congress to focus on issues that align with our priorities. But turning student-athletes into union employees is not the answer.”