The Power of Unity: An Exploration of the History of Athlete Unions and Labor Movements in Professional and Collegiate Sport

October 16, 2023

The world of professional sports is a realm of passion, skill, and unyielding dedication. Yet, beneath the roar of the crowds and the glitz of the games, lies a tale of determination, collective action, and progress – the story of athlete unions and labor movements in sports. In this extensive journey through history, we will delve deep into the origins, development, and profound influence of athlete unions, with a particular focus on the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) and other pivotal moments in the realm of sports labor relations.

The Dawn of Athlete Unions

The roots of athlete unions can be traced back to the early 20th century when professional athletes, primarily in baseball, began to recognize the need for collective action to address pervasive issues. Unfair contracts, meager wages, and limited rights served as catalysts for discussions among players. The establishment of the MLB Players Association in 1953 marked a crucial moment, setting the stage for the evolution of labor movements in sports.

The MLBPA: A Pioneer of Player Empowerment

The Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) holds a special place in the annals of athlete unions. Founded in 1953, the MLBPA, under the leadership of Marvin Miller, became a trailblazer in the fight for players’ rights. At the heart of their mission was the dismantling of the notorious reserve clause, a provision that had bound players to a single team, virtually without recourse. The MLBPA’s tireless efforts culminated in a groundbreaking arbitration case in 1975, known as the Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally decision. This landmark ruling declared that players who played a season without a signed contract would become free agents, effectively smashing the reserve clause and ushering in the era of free agency in Major League Baseball.

The MLBPA’s victories set a precedent for labor movements across professional sports. Athletes from other leagues looked to the MLBPA as an inspiration, and the success of baseball players in securing their rights emboldened others to follow suit. The MLBPA’s influence extended well beyond baseball diamonds, with their advocacy for fair compensation and workplace conditions resonating with athletes across sports.

While athlete unions celebrated significant victories, they also grappled with substantial challenges, ranging from player strikes to owner-initiated lockouts. These conflicts, such as the NFL player strikes during the 1980s and the 2011 NBA lockout, tested the mettle of both players and owners and redefined the dynamics of collective bargaining in the world of sports.

The Birth of NFLPA

In its early years, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) faced significant challenges and resistance from team owners, who held considerable power and control over the league and its players. However, the unwavering determination of players and their representatives paved the way for several transformative milestones in the history of the NFLPA, including the establishment of minimum wage standards, improved working conditions, and the groundbreaking right to free agency.

  • Minimum Wage Standards: One of the earliest battles that the NFLPA fought for was the implementation of minimum wage standards for players. In the early days of the NFL, many players were paid meager salaries, and some struggled to make ends meet during the offseason. The NFLPA’s efforts led to the establishment of minimum salary standards, ensuring that players received fair compensation for their contributions to the league.
  • Improved Working Conditions: Prior to the NFLPA’s advocacy, players had limited rights and protections. The association pushed for improved working conditions, including better medical coverage, safer playing conditions, and improved facilities. These changes not only benefited players but also contributed to the overall growth and professionalism of the league.
  • Right to Free Agency:  Perhaps the most significant milestone achieved by the NFLPA was the establishment of the right to free agency. Before the introduction of free agency, players had limited control over their careers. The reserve clause, similar to what was seen in baseball, bound players to their teams indefinitely. They had little say in where they played or how much they were paid.

   The NFLPA’s fight for free agency was a protracted battle that included legal challenges, strikes, and negotiations. The breakthrough came in 1993 when the NFL and the NFLPA reached a historic collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that included the introduction of unrestricted free agency. This meant that players with expired contracts were free to sign with any team of their choosing, providing them with the autonomy to control their careers and negotiate better contracts.

The achievement of free agency was a monumental victory for player rights and fundamentally changed the landscape of professional football. It allowed players to maximize their earning potential, compete on a level playing field, and choose teams that best suited their career goals.

Overall, the NFLPA’s early struggles against formidable opposition laid the foundation for the rights and benefits enjoyed by today’s NFL players. Through unity, perseverance, and a commitment to improving the conditions of their profession, players and their representatives succeeded in reshaping the NFL into the highly competitive and lucrative league it is today.

The Rise of the NBA Players Association and the Era of Athlete Empowerment

The National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) emerged in 1957, a mere year after the NFLPA’s inception. Early challenges in the NBA, such as paltry salaries and the absence of pension plans, prompted influential players like Bill Russell and Bob Cousy to take proactive steps. The NBPA would go on to play a central role in shaping the trajectory of the NBA.

The Oscar Robertson Rule and the Transformation of the NBA

The “Oscar Robertson Rule,” named after the iconic NBA player who led the charge, was a pivotal moment in the history of the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the broader landscape of athlete unions. This rule aimed to dismantle the restrictive practices that had long defined player-owner relationships in the NBA, most notably the infamous reserve clause. The significant role played by the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) in securing these fundamental rights marked an epochal shift in the landscape of athlete unions and their quest for fair treatment and agency.

The reserve clause, a contentious and deeply unpopular feature in the world of professional sports, bound players to their respective teams indefinitely. It essentially granted team owners near-complete control over a player’s career, leaving athletes with limited bargaining power and financial mobility. Under this system, players had little say in where they played, the terms of their contracts, or the ability to seek better opportunities.

Oscar Robertson and his fellow players recognized the need for change. They understood that true progress required unity and collective action. In 1970, Robertson, alongside other prominent players like John Havlicek and Jerry West, filed a class-action antitrust lawsuit against the NBA. The lawsuit challenged the legality of the reserve clause and sought to free players from its restrictive grip. This courageous and unprecedented move marked the beginning of a protracted legal battle that would reshape the NBA and professional sports in general.

The eventual settlement of the lawsuit in 1976 marked a historic turning point. The agreement, commonly known as the Oscar Robertson Rule, paved the way for free agency in the NBA. It established the principle that players, once their contracts expired, should have the freedom to choose where they played next, opening the door for negotiations and competitive bidding for their services. This newfound agency fundamentally transformed the dynamics of the NBA and gave players a significant voice in shaping their careers.

The role played by the NBPA during this period cannot be overstated. The association, led by dedicated leaders and player representatives, provided crucial support to players in their pursuit of fair labor practices. They navigated complex legal battles, negotiated with team owners, and advocated tirelessly for player rights. The success of the Oscar Robertson Rule represented a collective victory for the players and demonstrated the immense power of athlete unions in effecting change.

The NBA, once characterized by limited player mobility, became a thriving marketplace where talent could flourish and athletes could chart their own destinies. This transformative moment not only changed the game of basketball but also left an indelible mark on the broader landscape of athlete unions. Such advances inspired future generations of players to advocate for their rights and control over their careers.

Pioneering Achievements and Ongoing Challenges in Athlete Unions

Just as athlete unions wielded growing influence in professional sports, their emergence in college sports promised similar strides towards improved conditions, fair compensation, and comprehensive benefits for student-athletes. Notably, the MLB Players Association, guided by Marvin Miller’s leadership, achieved monumental breakthroughs that reverberated within the world of professional sports, ultimately dismantling the restrictive reserve clause and ushering in the era of free agency.

Struggles for Rights and Recognition for Collegiate Athletes

In addition to the efforts of the MLBPA and the NFLPA, athletes from various sports have continuously sought to secure better conditions, fair compensation, and a stronger voice in the decision-making processes of their respective leagues.

One of the earliest instances of athlete activism in college sports took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s. College athletes, particularly in football, began to express their dissatisfaction with the NCAA’s treatment and restrictions. They argued that they were, in effect, “student-athletes” in name only, as the demands of their sports often took precedence over their academic pursuits. These early efforts, while not leading to formal unions, laid the groundwork for future advocacy in college athletics.

At the heart of the issue was the perceived disparity between the term “student-athlete” and the reality of many college athletes’ lives. While the NCAA maintained the ideal of the student-athlete, these athletes argued that they were often athletes first and students second. The demands of their sports, including grueling practice schedules, extensive travel, and rigorous game commitments, left little time and energy for their academic pursuits.

One of the key grievances expressed by these athletes was the lack of financial support for their participation in collegiate sports. They contended that they were generating substantial revenue for their universities and the NCAA through their athletic performances but received no direct compensation. This financial inequity was a source of frustration and discontent among college athletes.

Additionally, college athletes sought greater control over their own lives and the ability to make decisions about their athletic and academic futures. They wanted a seat at the table when it came to shaping the rules and regulations that governed their collegiate careers.

These early efforts at athlete activism took various forms. Some college athletes engaged in protests and boycotts, refusing to participate in games or practices to draw attention to their demands. Others spoke out through interviews and public statements, raising awareness of the challenges they faced as student-athletes.

While these movements did not immediately lead to the establishment of formal unions or comprehensive reforms, they did succeed in sparking important conversations about the treatment of college athletes. Their advocacy efforts laid the groundwork for future generations of college athletes to continue the fight for their rights and fair treatment.

Over the decades that followed, the landscape of college athletics continued to evolve, and college athletes continued to push for greater agency and recognition of their contributions. These early instances of athlete activism served as a catalyst for broader discussions about the role of college athletes within the NCAA, setting the stage for future reforms and advancements in the realm of college sports.

The Formation of the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA)

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and the push for athlete unions in college sports gained momentum. The Northwestern University football team’s 2014 attempt to unionize under the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) was a landmark moment. Led by former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, these athletes asserted their right to be recognized as employees of the university, advocating for collective bargaining rights and essential protections.

At the heart of their argument was the assertion that their commitment to their sports was akin to a full-time job. They pointed to the tremendous time and effort they invested in their athletic pursuits, often to the detriment of their academic and personal lives. These student-athletes believed that they should be entitled to the benefits and safeguards typically associated with employee status, given the significant contributions they made to their universities and the NCAA.

Beyond the status of employees, the athletes also aimed to secure improvements in various areas, including healthcare, scholarships, and concussion protocols. Their advocacy shed light on pressing issues within college athletics and initiated critical conversations about the well-being and rights of student-athletes. 

Their unionization efforts gained considerable attention and support, sparking a national conversation about the treatment and rights of college athletes. However, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) eventually dismissed their petition, claiming that recognizing a Northwestern unit would have created an uneven labor arrangement with other schools in the Big Ten Conference, which were public institutions and not subject to the NLRB’s jurisdiction. Consequently, the NLRB couldn’t force them to be unionized. Despite the dismissal, the players who signed union cards saw themselves as pioneers in the movement for greater student-athlete rights. 

While the unionization effort at Northwestern faced legal challenges and did not immediately result in formal recognition, it marked a turning point in the ongoing struggle for athlete rights in college sports. It served as a catalyst for broader discussions about the treatment of college athletes and their access to essential protections and benefits. This landmark moment paved the way for future initiatives aimed at addressing the evolving landscape of collegiate athletics.

The Current Landscape: Dartmouth Men’s Basketball Team Unionizing

The recent move by the Dartmouth College men’s basketball team to file a petition for unionization underscores the growing momentum of player empowerment in college sports. On September 10, 2023, the Dartmouth men’s varsity basketball team collectively made a decision to sign representation cards with the Dartmouth staff union, SEIU Local 560, marking their united pursuit of unionization. Their motivation extends beyond personal gains in working conditions; it aspires to trigger a profound transformation in the realm of college sports.

Mit Winter, college sports attorney for Kennyhertz Perry, noted that in comparing the Dartmouth unionization efforts with the Northwestern attempted unionization, it’s important to note a significant distinction. Dartmouth’s affiliation with the Ivy League, as a private university, has played a pivotal role in their situation. Unlike Northwestern, which was the sole private university within the Big Ten, Dartmouth’s circumstances differ due to the Ivy League’s distinct structure and governance. 

The Ivy League, as an association of elite private institutions, operates under a distinct set of rules and governance structures. This includes a level of autonomy and decision-making that differs from public universities and conferences like the Big Ten. Dartmouth’s affiliation with the Ivy League provides a different context for their unionization efforts, shaped by the Ivy League’s exclusive membership and private university status.

Northwestern’s struggle to unionize as the sole private university in the Big Ten faced challenges specific to their circumstances within a predominantly public institution conference. In contrast, Dartmouth’s unionization efforts are influenced by the Ivy League’s established framework, which may offer a more supportive environment for such initiatives.

Moreover, the stance of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has evolved to become more favorable to athletes being recognized as employees. 

The unanimous decision to unionize, representing all 15 players on the team, reflects their unwavering commitment to addressing issues prevalent in collegiate athletics. Their actions align with the values and mission of their institution, Dartmouth College.

The players ground their unionization initiative in recent legal and governmental developments that have laid a solid foundation for their cause. They highlight the unanimous Supreme Court decision in NCAA v. Alston as a pivotal moment. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, concurring with the decision, emphasized that the NCAA’s business model would be considered illegal in almost any other industry in the United States. He underlined that collective bargaining could be a viable solution.

Additionally, the players cite the guidance provided by the General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in September 2021, which categorizes certain players at academic institutions as employees entitled to all protections offered by the National Labor Relations Act. As Division 1 basketball players, they fall under this designation and benefit from this regulatory framework.

Their unionization drive aims to address specific issues affecting their collegiate experience. Firstly, they seek compensation akin to other student employees, advocating for hourly wages similar to those received by other student workers on campus or scholarships to alleviate the necessity for part-time jobs. They emphasize that being a student and an employee of the College are not mutually exclusive and cite the Ivy League’s philosophy that student-athletes should have the same opportunities as all students.

Secondly, the players underscore the financial burden they face due to substantial out-of-pocket expenses for health insurance deductibles resulting from injuries sustained during sports activities. They assert that Dartmouth should assume responsibility for these costs and any potential long-term disabilities stemming from their participation in Dartmouth sports.

The players found inspiration in the successful unionization efforts of other student workers on campus, such as the dining workers and graduate students. The team has been supported by Dartmouth’s staff union, SEIU Local 560, and prominent figures like Tony Clark, president of the World Players Association and MLBPA executive director.

Their collective actions reflect a growing movement within collegiate sports, seeking change and fair treatment for college athletes. They invite athletes across Dartmouth, the Ivy League, and the nation to join their cause, emphasizing that their success would provide college athletes with an equal voice regarding their working conditions.

In the words of Cade Haskins ’25 and Romeo Myrthil ’25, members of the Dartmouth men’s varsity basketball team, “It is time for a new model for collegiate sports in the United States to be built.” Their journey embodies the evolving landscape of college athletics and the pursuit of equitable treatment for student-athletes.

In the initial hearing of the Dartmouth unionization case, the College and Service Employees International Union Local 560 from Concord were present. According to legal expert Michael McCann, who is also a professor at UNH Law School, Dartmouth is challenging the players’ claim that the team qualifies as a “labor organization.” Dartmouth’s argument revolves around the assertion that their Big Green program is not a significant revenue generator, and their players do not receive athletic scholarships as in other D1 schools. The university contends that benefits such as equipment and apparel provided to players do not constitute compensation under employment law, and admissions and financial aid are not influenced by athletic ability.

On the other hand, the players’ lawyers countered by highlighting that the program does contribute to donations, including a substantial gift from Celtics co-owner Stephen Lewinstein. Notably, they pointed out that the student manager for the team is paid as an employee through a work-study program. This hearing marks the beginning of the unionization case involving Dartmouth.

The Dartmouth case joins a series of recent challenges to the traditional NCAA student-athlete model. In February, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit heard arguments from a former Villanova football player who contended that college athletes should be considered employees. Additionally, the NCAA faces a $1.3 billion class-action lawsuit from current and former players regarding the use of their name, image, and likeness in television broadcasts.

The Ivy League itself is also grappling with legal challenges, as current and former Brown University basketball players filed a lawsuit against the conference in March, contesting its practice of not awarding athletic scholarships. Unlike past efforts, today’s climate appears more favorable to athlete empowerment, with increased public support and legal shifts, including the Supreme Court’s 2021 ruling in N.C.A.A. v. Alston and evolving state regulations on endorsement deals. This favorable environment, along with unique structural advantages, could make the Dartmouth case a key moment in the ongoing evolution of college athletics.

The Modern Athlete Union: Challenges and Evolution

Today, athlete unions stand as potent entities, fiercely representing the interests of players across various leagues. The NFLPA, NBPA, and their counterparts have continued to evolve, adapting to new challenges in an ever-changing sports industry.

Collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) serve as the linchpin of the relationship between players and owners. These agreements intricately define critical aspects such as salary caps, revenue sharing, and player conduct policies. The negotiation process is a complex ballet involving player representatives and legal experts, and at times, it culminates in acrimonious impasses, as witnessed in recent NFL CBA negotiations.

The influence of athlete unions transcends the boundaries of sports arenas. Athletes have harnessed their platforms to advocate passionately for social justice causes, catalyzing change on critical issues, including racial inequality and gender equity. The activism of athletes such as Colin Kaepernick and the WNBA’s Maya Moore exemplifies the profound potential of athlete unions as instruments of transformation.

Looking ahead, athlete unions will continue to play an indispensable role in shaping the future of sports. In an era marked by challenges like player safety, mental health, and economic disparities, athlete unions will remain at the forefront of these dialogues, fervently advocating for the welfare and rights of players.  Athlete unions, from professional leagues to college sports, have been marked by athletes’ persistent efforts to secure their rights and advocate for better conditions. The Dartmouth men’s basketball team’s decision to unionize reflects the continuing evolution of athlete activism in college athletics and underscores the importance of addressing athletes’ concerns and working towards a more equitable future for all college athletes.