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Majority of U.S. adults are against college athletes joining unions, according to AP-NORC survey

By RALPH D. RUSSO and LINLEY SANDERS,Associated Press
Published: March 14, 2024, 8:01am

As Dartmouth men’s basketball players move toward forming the first labor union in college sports, a majority of Americans say they are against college athletes unionizing — though younger respondents are more supportive.

A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that most adults, 55%, believe NCAA athletes should not be permitted to form unions that would allow them as employees to collectively bargain with their schools.

But younger Americans, Democrats and Independents are more open to unionization. About 6 in 10 adults under the age of 45 support allowing college athletes to form unions. That drops to 36% among those between the ages of 45-59 and 23% of adults ages 60 and older.

Across party lines, 56% of Democrats and about half of Independents say athletes should be permitted to form unions. Only 23% of Republicans are supportive.

In a recent interview with Fox News, Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, a former major college football coach and a harsh critic of unions in general, said athletes unionizing would “absolutely kill college sports.”

“You know, the last time I looked, they’re not employees. These students are student-athletes. And if you want the federal government involved and ruin something, you try to make the student-athletes employees,” said Tuberville, who has sponsored a college sports bill that would block employee status.

NCAA President Charlie Baker and other college sports leaders have been lobbying Congress for several years, asking for a federal law to regulate the way athletes can be compensated for use of their names, images and likenesses.

Tuberville and Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia have sponsored one of several bills addressing NIL and other college sports reforms that have been put forth in both the House and Senate over the past four years. None have gotten any traction, with lawmakers focused on more pressing matters.

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More recently, the emphasis from college sports leaders has shifted to NCAA antitrust protections that would prevent athletes from being deemed employees, thanks to looming lawsuits.

Baker and others contend the vast majority of the 1,100 NCAA member schools could not afford to treat their athletes as employees and would sponsor fewer teams if athletes were categorized this way.

According to the AP-NORC poll, 55% of non-white adults support college athletes being permitted to form unions. Only 34% of white adults say that unions should be permitted for college athletes.

“This country is not based on unions, but when unions got started, it secured everybody’s position in whatever their profession was, so to speak, especially the blue collars,” said 62-year-old Eric McWilliams, a Black man from Pennsylvania who’s been a part of a union and participated in the poll. “These college athletes aren’t making millions of dollars like the pros are. They have nothing really to fall back on. If they get injured, it’s over.”

Last month, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled Dartmouth’s men’s basketball players qualified for employee status, paving the way for team members to vote if they it wanted to join a union.

On March 5, the players voted 13-2 to join Service Employees International Union Local 560, which already represents some Dartmouth workers. The school has asked for a review — essentially appealing the regional director’s initial ruling — which could result in a lengthy process to determine if Dartmouth will ever be required to negotiate with the players.

Still, it was a significant milestone for those who have been advocating for some — if not all — college athletes to be recognized as employees and receive a greater share of the revenue that college football and basketball generate for schools and conferences that compete at the highest levels.

The media and marketing rights for the NCAA men’s Division I basketball tournament, which begins next week, generated $945 million in revenue for the association and its member schools last year.

“Now it’s time for the colleges to stop wasting their time and money fighting athletes in court and lobbying Congress to roll back athletes’ rights, and instead start negotiating with athletes on revenue-sharing, health and safety protections, and more,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said.

The survey found 53% of U.S. adults say colleges and universities with major athletic programs should provide athletes with a share of any revenue received from broadcast rights. However, less than half support giving athletes additional spending money, a salary or exemptions from certain academic courses that they need to graduate.

“I think that really the credit towards progress has always gone to athletes,” said Ramogi Huma, the executive director of the advocacy group the National College Players Association, which has pushed for college athletes in revenue-generating programs to be deemed employees. “This is brick by brick by brick.”

Huma helped organize a labor movement among Northwestern football players in 2015 that started similarly to the one at Dartmouth, with a regional NLRB director ruling the players could vote to join a union. The initial ruling was eventually dismissed.

In the Dartmouth case, the players appeared to be acting on their own, though college sports leaders, including Baker, have said repeatedly the majority of athletes they interact with do not want to be employees of their schools.

Isaac Vance is a former college football at Kent State who served on the NCAA’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee for three years before ending his college career this past season.

Vance told AP recently that he fears a more professionalized model of college athletics that includes employee status, labor unions and collective bargaining would end up hurting college athletes.

“It just gets rid of the scholastic model that … so many great experiences have been built off of and then it turns into a semi-pro league, and truthfully at that point, it really becomes — especially in football, basketball — pay-for-play and also becomes a business,” Vance said.

The poll of 1,102 adults was conducted Feb. 22-26, 2024, using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.

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