A bill has been introduced in the Connecticut General Assembly that would define certain collegiate athletes at public colleges and universities within the state as employees. The proposed law would permit eligible student-athlete employees to join unions and bargain collectively. If the bill is enacted into law, Connecticut would become the first state in the country to permit student-athletes at public universities to unionize.

The bill (No. 5485), introduced by State Representative Matthew Lesser (D-Middletown), has been referred to the state’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee for further consideration.

The bill provides that a student-athlete will be considered an employee when the student-athlete:

  1. receives a scholarship of not less than 90% of the cost of tuition,
  2. the scholarship is materially related to the student’s expected participation in intercollegiate athletics, and
  3. revenues generated in the prior academic year for the athletic program in which the student is expected to participate, when divided by the total number of students expected to participate in such athletic program, exceeds 400% of the value of such scholarship.

Representative Lesser explained that he believes a union would “at least get students a seat at the table.” Inspired by former Connecticut basketball player Shabazz Napier’s complaint that he and some of his teammates had gone to bed hungry, Lesser said that “this is a big industry…we’ve heard from students at UConn and around the country that they feel exploited…so the question is, do we want to give those students the right to negotiate with the schools and the NCAA?”

In March 2014, the Regional Director of the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago ruled that scholarship football players at a private university were “employees” defined by the National Labor Relations Act. He ordered an election to determine if the football players at Northwestern University wanted to be represented by a union. The result of the election has been held in abeyance while the Board reviews the initial determination that the football players were employees of the University.

Representative Lesser also said, “Student athletes in revenue sports are part of a major industry….The NCAA has tried to create a climate of exploitation. The NCAA shouldn’t be able to exploit young, talented athletes who risk career-ending injuries on a daily basis.”

Lesser concluded, “the bill will ensure that, at least in Connecticut, athletes’ voices are heard and their rights respected—that they’re not just used as free labor.”