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A historic election is taking place in Hanover, N.H. — there are 15 eligible voters


There is another election taking place today, an historic one, and it involves just 15 voters. NPR's Andrea Hsu has the details.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: This is no presidential primary. This is the Dartmouth men's basketball team's union election. Fifteen players are expected to vote today on whether or not to form the first union in college sports. When I spoke to the team's forward, Cade Haskins, a few weeks ago, he was excited and a little overwhelmed, juggling basketball, schoolwork and everything that comes with labor organizing.

CADE HASKINS: You know, you're just taking it day by day, but, you know, trying to get as much done as possible.

HSU: At the heart of this election is a fierce debate over whether college athletes should be treated as employees who have the right to unionize and collectively bargain over pay and benefits. All along, Dartmouth has said it believes students recruited to play sports are scholars first and athletes second. The school does not give athletic scholarships. But last month, a federal labor official ruled that Haskins and his teammates are, in fact, employees of the school, finding that Dartmouth benefits from the team's work through things like alumni donations and publicity and that the school exercises a lot of control over that work.

PETER MCDONOUGH: I think we're in a real challenging place.

HSU: Peter McDonough is general counsel at the American Council on Education. He worries this is a slippery slope. If a college basketball team unionizes, then what? Would the field hockey team be employees, too? And if so, how would schools afford that?

MCDONOUGH: Do we want the field hockey team to no longer exist because it was never going to be revenue positive, even in - on its best day? And now it's certainly not revenue positive.

HSU: Richard Paulsen, a sports economist at the University of Michigan, agrees that having unions in college sports would be complicated. But he does see the potential in bringing together, say, a school's football players with its rowers and wrestlers.

RICHARD PAULSEN: That would likely improve the bargaining power of some of these athletes that are not in these top revenue generating sports.

HSU: Even if they end up negotiating different rates of pay. Last week, Dartmouth asked the National Labor Relations Board to halt the election pending further review. So far, the board hasn't responded. Regardless of what happens, this is shaping up to be a long fight. And meanwhile, Dartmouth men's basketball plays its final game of the season tonight against Harvard. Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Andrea Hsu
Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.