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Dartmouth union ruling marks a major change in American college sports

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Dartmouth’s Robert McRae III, left, takes a pass from Jackson Munro as Duke’s Jaylen Blakes, centre, defends during an NCAA college basketball game in Durham, N.C., on Nov. 6, 2023. A National Labor Relations Board regional official has decided that Dartmouth basketball players are employees of the school, clearing the way for an election that would create the first-ever labor union for NCAA athletes.Ben Mckeown/The Associated Press

Though he’s been in the job for a year, the all-star weekend just past was NHL Players’ Association boss Marty Walsh’s big coming out.

The PA has traditionally been led by loud, ineffective men whose signal achievement is getting turned over by ownership and shaken until they cry. Walsh hasn’t faced his CBA Golgotha yet, so there’s no way of knowing what he’s made of, but the early impression was good.

Walsh is extremely Bostonian – twangy, lumpy, ruddy. He was a construction worker and a union boss before he was the U.S. Secretary of Labour, and has the look of someone who at least once in his life has swung a tire iron in anger. If ‘mob wife’ is having a fashion moment, ‘genteel wise guy’ has never gone out of style.

In Toronto, Walsh managed the trick of taking partial credit for the NHL’s Olympic breakthrough, while at the same time facing none of the hard questions about the London Five sex-assault case.

He kissed a few adult babies by telling a local reporter he now considers Toronto “the mecca” of hockey. Maybe Walsh realized that hockey executives in this city get away with things that customers would never put up with in his hometown.

Then he blew back the hair of the Arizona Coyotes’ ownership, which is like making fun of the sitting prime minister – easy, rarely wrong and always good for a laugh. All in all, it was top-drawer union’ing.

The current NHL CBA expires in a little more than two years. With his air of menacing goodwill, maybe Walsh is the guy who’s going to free the players’ union from gilded servitude. If so, it would be a boon to sports unions everywhere. They don’t get many high-profile wins any more.

In general, sports has charted the rise and fall of the North American union movement. The big four leagues established their shops in the fifties and sixties. By the seventies and eighties, they had free agency. By the nineties, players had moved from the upper classes into the aristocracy.

Shohei Ohtani just signed a US$700-million deal. That’s more than the combined amount that every single player in Major League Baseball was paid in 1991. Unions did that.

But sports unions take a beating in the wider culture. Their main job is complaining on behalf of a bunch of twenty-something multimillionaires. When their constituents do something on a continuum between stupid and despicable, the unions are quoted in the papers saying they are still owed their money. It’s not exactly Cesar Chavez giving speeches on the back of a pickup truck.

This might be tolerated if sports union bosses were seen as suave villains, but most are interchangeable cogs. Whenever the union is in the news a lot, it’s because whoever’s in charge has had an arm put around his/her back by ownership and is publicly begging to be let go. Across the board, it’s been two decades of bad press for the sports union.

But soft, what light through yonder revenue-sharing agreement breaks?

On Monday, the U.S. National Labor Relations Board ruled that the members of the Dartmouth men’s basketball team are employees of the university. Therefore, they may form a union.

Dartmouth doesn’t give out athletic scholarships. As a result, and even by the low standards of the Ivy League, the team is terrible. But being bad at sports has never prevented an American college from making money off them. If the team unionizes, they can bargain for all sorts of stuff – salaries, travel perks, cuts of the merch.

The next phase of the legal process starts now. In all likelihood, it will take years and at least one trip to the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve. But this genie is not going back in the bottle.

American college athletes now have the freedom to switch schools at will, earn licensing money and accept third-party payment. The potential fortunes beginning to be realized means someone will have to separate the kids from their money. Unions are inevitable. At the outset at least, this can be a new sort of labour movement.

The unions of the pros, the ones who protect alleged criminals and guarantee that veterans make money on the backs of rookies, are unpopular.

But the unions of college sports can tell a different sort of story. They are protecting the rights of an only lately discovered underprivileged class. They are fighting a monolith every political compass direction in America hates right now – elite colleges.

The fact that some of the money the sportsmen and women are paid will have to come from tuition fees won’t factor into it. Everyone will be too excited about sticking it to the Claudine Gays of the world. Down with Harvard; up the revolution.

There is the heartening possibility of a knock-on effect into the real world, where it might actually matter. I have made some lucky professional decisions in my life, but one of the most fortuitous – joining a union – wasn’t a choice. I just rolled into the job and, for a few bucks a month, there’s someone with some pull watching my back.

Who wouldn’t want this? Why doesn’t everybody have this? When I hear a Canadian arguing against unions, it has the same ring as an American talking down public health care. You may believe that, but only until you get sick. If a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged, a union man is a free marketer who’s been fired.

Another salutary future effect of unions in American university athletics is that they will hobble the cult of college sports. Once the football or gymnastics team are highly paid saps complaining about having to fly business class, they’ll become like the academics – a widely lampooned and deeply out-of-touch elite. Though this may take a while, it is just as inevitable.

But in the interim, the discussion may prompt a few more people to wonder why they don’t have representation by an organization capable of going to war on their behalf. Why does a guy who makes $10-million a year get that benefit, while people who make $20 an hour have been talked out of it?

If enough people wonder hard enough for long enough, they may even do something about it. Not everyone gets their Marty Walsh, but everybody deserves one.

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