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College athletes unionized? This Michigan Democrat wants to make it happen

The Big House on a clear day
The University of Michigan football team would be able to go on strike under a bill percolating in the state Legislature. (Bryan Pollard /
  • Bill would allow college athletes to unionize in Michigan
  • Supporters say college athletes make profits for universities and deserve better working conditions
  • Opponents note athletes already receive scholarships and other benefits

LANSING — Should Spartans players unionize? Or Wolverines and Chippewas?

At least one Michigan Democrats wants to give it a shot.

House Bill 4497, sponsored by Rep. Carrie Rheingans, D-Ann Arbor, would allow all college athletes in Michigan to be recognized as university employees and give them the right to unionize. 


In Michigan, student athletes obtain scholarships by playing for universities. Under a 2020 law, they are also entitled to make money off of their names, images and likeness. 


But Rheingans said that is not enough, noting the vast majority of players do not earn income from name, image and likeness  (NIL) deals.

“They will not be able to secure NIL contracts, so they won’t be able to receive any of the value, or be able to have better working conditions for the work that they are putting in for their institutions,” Rheingans said.

The bill would also allow graduate students who work as research assistants to unionize. A similar bill without the student athlete language already cleared the Senate last month along party lines, with Democrats favoring the legislation.

Jenell Mansfield, legislative coordinator for the American Federation of Teachers in Michigan, told Bridge Michigan on Thursday that the organization spearheaded the legislation to allow research assistants to bargain for better working conditions and benefits. 

Rheingans said Thursday she had considered removing the student athlete language but decided to keep it. 

head shot of Michigan Rep. Carrie Rheingans, D-Ann Arbor.
State Rep. Carrie Rheingans, D-Ann Arbor, is sponsoring legislation that would allow college athletes in Michigan to unionize.

However, she acknowledged keeping the language would make it harder to gain support among legislators and said she is open to removing the language and bringing back the issue separately.

“I believe that the labor they produce for the universities and institutions is important to recognize as labor,” she said. 

Rep. Mike Mueller, R-Linden, argued athletes already receive tuition assistance and other types of “preferential treatment.” 

“It’s an honor to be able to play college sports,” he said. “Are we going to get rid of amateur sports altogether? Because then what happens (is) you have football teams going to go on strike.”

The bill is the latest in a series of pro-union bills sponsored by Democrats since they took control of the Legislature for the first time since the mid-1980s. 

Among other things, they have repealed a Right-to-Work law that barred compulsory union dues or fees and restore a construction-industry “prevailing wage” law the GOP repealed in 2018. Democrats also have sponsored legislation to give more power to teacher unions and make it easier to donate to labor political action committees.


The fight over college sports unions is not new. 

In 2014, The Northwestern University football team asked to be unionized, arguing the games brought the university billions of dollars while players faced harsh working conditions and poor medical care benefits especially after graduation.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association counted student athletes as amateurs to circumvent labor laws, the players argued. But the National Labor Relations Board ruled against them in 2015. 

In 2022, however, the same board sided with the University of Southern California football players who argued they should be treated as university employees. The case is not settled yet.

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