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Penn football captains shake hands with Dartmouth's captains before a game on Sep. 30, 2023.

Credit: Abhiram Juvvadi

Nearly a month ago, Dartmouth men’s basketball voted to unionize, a hugely consequential decision that has had ripple effects across college athletics, including Penn. As the option of unionization grows in likelihood, members of Penn football have begun to speculate on the impacts a union might have.

"I think it would completely blow up the market, and the capabilities to come from it could be beneficial,” a member of the football team, who wishes to stay anonymous, stated. “I imagine everyone would follow suit if Dartmouth would win. … We will see what comes of it [and] see if we can be compensated for our efforts on and off the field."

In the fight for fair pay for Penn athletes, unionization has emerged as an encouraging option for several reasons. 

For decades, college athletes have served as the backbone for one of the nation’s most lucrative businesses. Despite providing the product upon which investors, television networks, and the NCAA generated revenue, the athletes themselves were not privy to a cut of the cash. 

That all changed in late August 2021 when the NCAA adopted a name, image, and likeness policy that would finally allow direct financial compensation for athletes. As this news broke, the collegiate sphere celebrated the newly gained financial freedom of players. 

Despite this positive breakthrough in players’ rights, there are many players — and programs — that are left behind. In the Ivy League especially, a league where little money is created through NIL, and athletes are ineligible for athletic scholarships, there is a continuous struggle to receive just compensation. 

So, since NIL or scholarships won’t pay the bills, Penn athletes have turned towards unionization as one of their only tools to fight for proper compensation, but unionization hasn’t always been a viable solution.

Dartmouth is only the second team this decade that has attempted to unionize, following the Northwestern football team’s failed bid in 2015. The ongoing debate lies in whether student-athletes are considered school employees.

Months after the team’s initial declaration of intent in September, on Feb. 5, 2024, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that student-athletes are considered school employees and would therefore be granted the right to petition for a union. On March 5, Dartmouth voted 13-2 to unionize. 

Following the NLRB’s ruling, Dartmouth College appealed the decision, effectively delaying the process. As the court case rages on, Dartmouth players Romeo Myrthil and Cade Haskins released an open letter.

"We call on other athletes here at Dartmouth, across the Ivy League, and the country to follow this story and join us on the journey to improve the conditions for college athletes everywhere," the letter concluded.

If the Big Green’s plan is approved, other private institutions, including Penn, would have the opportunity to unionize for the first time in history. This opportunity has piqued the interest of many players who hope for a better quality of treatment.

Football is one of Penn’s major athletic programs, but its athletes have received vastly different treatment than the average Division I program in America. Athletics can, and often do, take up a major part of students’ lives. 

Across the country, to compensate for this large commitment, D-I football programs provide priority class scheduling, complete nutritional support, and more — all luxuries that are routinely denied to Penn athletes. This disparity in treatment can result in a feeling of dissatisfaction amongst players. 

 "[T]here's a bunch of us, and I know it takes a lot of money, but it'll be nice if the school came to help us out or if they could figure out how to fuel us a little bit better," another football player said in regards to certain nutritional standards.

Some argue that the lack of funding is the result of a general apathy toward athletics, both from Penn and from the Ivy League as a whole. If football, easily one of Penn’s most popular sports, is unable to get adequate funding, then who is? 

“Personally I am all for it,” another football player said about unionization. “I also know football is hardly revenue-making at Penn, and the first thing Penn would do once we get minimum wage is cut the sport, somewhat dishearteningly. … They’re too smart to pay us.”

A mistrust of Penn’s intentions has created a stark separation between the athlete and the school. Additionally, some players argue that the effects of unionization would likely expand further than Franklin Field.

"I don't think it's going to happen, but if it were to happen, almost everyone would have to unionize," senior quarterback Aidan Sayin said. "Because it wouldn't be a uniform sports world. There wouldn't be regulations and stuff, so everyone would have to unionize together."

Though some players shared pro-unionization sentiments, others were wary of the harm a union could have on the team. Unions can carry negative connotations, including providing a large distraction away from winning.

"Unionization has become such a buzzword," one player said. "I don’t think anything good will come from it, and it takes away from the sport."

A bid for a union would likely be seen as a player revolt, and due to the general lack of precedence in American athletics, it is hard to imagine how Penn would respond to such action. Stepping into this unknown inspires trepidation in athletes — a union could either provide marginally better treatment or lead to a downfall of athletic programs across the country.

"I mean, I think [Penn] has done a great job with athletics, especially with the football team," Sayin said. "You know, we have this new locker room and the whole facility and everything so I don't know if I could say I'm not grateful for everything we've gotten to this point."

Additionally, if unionization allows players to count as employees, then protections afforded to student-athletes can be taken away. Guarantees that protect the equal payment of men’s and women’s collegiate sports, like Title IX, could be in jeopardy if schools now recognize their students as professionals. If seen as employees, there are also less protections for the existence of non-earning athletic programs.

“I don't know if [unionization] being successful gives a path towards getting those goals more or attaining goals. Because when you unionize to be employees of a company, the schools might not have the same sort of restrictions now in terms of what they can do with that money,” Sayin said. “So if they feel like a sport isn't as profitable as another one, maybe they don't get as many things as they had gotten prior to being employees.” 

The result of Dartmouth’s unionization push remains to be seen, but there is no denying the future it may hold. 

Should the Big Green successfully unionize, they will pave the way for Penn and other universities to follow suit. There is already budding discussion over whether or not Penn athletes will choose to walk down that path and what it will mean for college athletics when they take the first step.