Littler’s Tyler Sims Testifies Before Congress on Effects of Student-Athletes’ Employment Status, Unionization Efforts

WASHINGTON, D.C. (March 12, 2024) – Littler shareholder Tyler A. Sims testified today before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce at a joint hearing of the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Development and the Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions on “Safeguarding Student-Athletes from NLRB Misclassification.”

Speaking as a former Division I athlete, retired professional hockey player, and employment and labor attorney, Sims discussed the legal and practical issues that could result should student-athletes be classified as employees of their schools under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). He explained how this classification could lead to student-athletes having to pay taxes on their otherwise exempt scholarships, limits on player practice time, altered relationships with coaches, and scholarships or even enrollment jeopardized by poor athletic performance or injuries, among other harms.

Sims also noted that some sports programs themselves, which have been historically unprofitable and bring in minimal revenue, could be cut if the schools must spend more on wages and benefits for certain student-athletes, which is what happened following budget shortfalls stemming from the pandemic.

“Those student-athlete learning experiences over four years are fundamentally different than the experiences as a professional athlete, who could be cut from a team, traded, or sent down to a lower level at any moment for poor performance or any other reason,” said Sims. “In fact, it is those student-athlete experiences that helped me become a professional athlete and deal with the pressures and realities of professional sports. This is really what is lost in the discourse about whether student-athletes should be considered employees under the NLRA—the lack of focus on the education and preparation for life you receive from playing a college sport.”

Sims also explained how the unique nature of collegiate athletics programs—from the balance between school and sports to the unique nature of the NCAA conference system, which includes both public and private universities—offers a meaningful distinction from professional sports leagues governed by the NLRA (which only covers private schools and entities). He noted questions around how strikes or lockouts could impact a student-athlete’s education, for example, or what happens when collective bargaining agreements at a single school conflict with NCAA rules as consequences of these key differences. Some of these very reasons were also cited by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in 2015 when it declined to exercise jurisdiction over student-athletes at Northwestern University, as Sims explained.

The hearing comes as members of Dartmouth’s men’s basketball team voted to unionize on March 5 following a ruling in February from NLRB regional director Laura Sacks that the players were school employees. Dartmouth has appealed the ruling to the NLRB. Should the NLRB overrule its decision in the Northwestern University case and determine that the players are school employees under the NLRA, this would be the first-ever student-athlete union and could upend the very fabric of college sports.

Other witnesses included Jill Bodensteiner, vice president and director of athletics at Saint Joseph’s University; Mark Gaston Pearce, executive director of the Workers’ Rights Institute at Georgetown Law; and Prof. Matthew Mitten, executive director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University Law School.

Hearing testimony and a link to the full video recording of the hearing may be found here.

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