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Men's basketball at Dartmouth will vote on unionizing. It could be groundbreaking

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The Dartmouth men's basketball team is not headed for March Madness. They're currently in last place in the Ivy League.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: There's Myrthil in the right corner wide open, and it's in and out again.

PFEIFFER: But they are headed for something historic - a union election. NPR's Andrea Hsu explains why that has the college sports world talking.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Two years ago, Dartmouth's 6'6" forward, Cade Haskins, was busy going to practices and games, keeping up with his classes and working in the campus snack bar. Then, other students working for Dartmouth Dining began agitating for a union.

CADE HASKINS: I was kind of just listening, reading all about it, staying informed.

HSU: His interest surged as the students won their union election and then won big raises. Haskins' wage went from 13.25 an hour to now, as a supervisor, just under 25 an hour. That got him thinking about his basketball teammates and all the time they spend at practice watching film, lifting weights and traveling to games on weekends.

HASKINS: It's easily 30-plus hours a week, honestly.

HSU: If he got paid for that, Haskins thought, he could quit the snack bar and his second job at the alumni desk. Haskins started talking to his teammates about what they could get from being in a union - the right to bargain over not just pay, but health benefits.

HASKINS: You know, basketball - it's a physical sport, so, you know, people get hurt. This year, we've had a lot more injuries than most years.

HSU: He himself has suffered shoulder and hip injuries and says Dartmouth doesn't help with the extra costs. Well, last September, the 15 players on the team came together and signed union cards, pledging their desire to join a union that represents other workers at Dartmouth.

HASKINS: It's definitely different than the dining workers, but, you know, we definitely learned a lot from watching them.

HSU: Now, Dartmouth didn't fight the dining workers union, but it is challenging the basketball players. At a hearing before the National Labor Relations Board, the school argued that the students' primary focus is learning, not basketball - also that, as an Ivy, it does not give athletic scholarships and that its basketball program doesn't even generate revenue. But the labor official overseeing the hearing disagreed. She found that the basketball players do perform work that benefits Dartmouth and that the school exercises a lot of control over that work - the classic employer-employee relationship. And so, she ruled, the players should be allowed to go forward with a union election. Haskins and his teammates were at practice and heading over to lift weights when they got the news.

HASKINS: So it made lifts a lot more positive and exciting (laughter).

HSU: The question of whether college athletes should be paid is a hot topic, with similar cases playing out at USC and elsewhere. Ken Jacobsen, director of the sports law program at Temple Law School, has been watching all of these cases with trepidation. He says classifying college athletes as employees who are entitled to minimum wage would change the nature of college sports completely.

KEN JACOBSEN: The money and funding that would be necessary is substantial.

HSU: It's one thing if you're Michigan, he says. It's another thing if you're one of the many schools that aren't bursting at the seams with cash. And if the funding isn't there, he says, then you're facing program cuts and how to do that while ensuring equal opportunities for men and women.

JACOBSEN: You know, this is the road I see down the line.

HSU: Dartmouth has said it will appeal the ruling. But even so, the union election is expected to go forward in a matter of weeks. As with other union drives, this is likely just the start of what will be a long legal saga.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRAKE SONG, "STORIES ABOUT MY BROTHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.