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.”

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Photo of Gregg E. Clifton Gregg E. Clifton

Gregg E. Clifton is a Principal in the Phoenix, Arizona, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He is Co-Leader of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Practice Group and serves as the editor of the firm’s sports law blog.

Mr. Clifton has extensive experience in…

Gregg E. Clifton is a Principal in the Phoenix, Arizona, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He is Co-Leader of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Practice Group and serves as the editor of the firm’s sports law blog.

Mr. Clifton has extensive experience in the collegiate and professional sports world. He has advised numerous professional franchises on general labor and employment issues, including Title III ADA regulatory compliance and wage and hour issues. He serves as lead counsel for several Major League Baseball teams in their salary arbitration matters and has represented NCAA and NAIA collegiate clients regarding rules compliance, investigatory matters and in disciplinary hearings. In addition, he has handled Title IX investigations and compliance issues for NCAA and NAIA member institutions. Mr. Clifton has also worked extensively in the area of agent regulation and enforcement in professional and college sports and regularly provides counsel on issues relating to NCAA and NAIA amateurism issues and athlete eligibility questions. He has also served as an expert witness in matters involving sports agents’ work and responsibilities, as well as athlete compensation issues.

Prior to joining Jackson Lewis, he spent six years as Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Team Sports for Gaylord Sports Management. He also served as President of the Athlete and Entertainment Division for famed sports attorney Bob Woolf’s firm, Woolf Associates, in Boston.

Mr. Clifton began his career as an Associate at Jackson Lewis where he focused his practice on traditional labor law. He continues to counsel clients in the areas of collective bargaining negotiations, representation cases, arbitrations and National Labor Relations Board matters.

Mr. Clifton frequently serves as an expert speaker to law schools, including Harvard University, Boston College, Hofstra University and Arizona State University, and bar associations regarding sports law issues, including agent regulation and salary arbitration. He is also often cited as an expert source in national news media for his commentary and opinion on legal issues in sports.