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NLRB GC Moves to Make College Athletes Employees

Last week, the General Counsel for the National Labor Relations Board (the “NLRB”), Jennifer Abruzzo, filed a highly anticipated complaint against the University of Southern California (“USC”), the Pac-12 Conference (the “PAC-12”) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (the “NCAA”).  Through the complaint, Abruzzo seeks to establish collegiate student-athletes as employees who possess union organizing rights.  Further, the complaint alleges USC, the PAC-12 and the NCAA are joint employers of the covered student-athletes and the parties were in violation of the National Labor Relations Act (the “NLRA”) by not treating them as employees.  If successful, the complaint would invoke new precedent granting certain student-athletes employee status thereby having rights under the NLRA to unionize and come together for their shared benefit. 

With her filing, the General Counsel issued the following statement, “The conduct of USC, the Pac-12 Conference, and the NCAA, as joint employers, deprives their players of their statutory right to organize and join together to improve their working and playing conditions if they wish to do so.”  Abruzzo appears to be following through on a pledge she made back in her 2021 memo seeking to establish precedent to treat student-athletes at private colleges as employees ensuring them organizing rights.

The complaint alleges USC, the PAC-12 and the NCAA intentionally “misclassified the players as non-employee student-athletes,” and those actions were taken “to intentionally deprive the players of their rights under Section 7 of the act and to discourage employees from engaging in protected concerted activities.”  The complaint seeks a ruling which will direct the defendants to reclassify the student-athletes as employees and inform them of their new status.

Some will recall back in 2015, Northwestern University football players attempted to unionize only to have the NLRB elect not to exercise jurisdiction over their petition.  As a result, this will be the first time the NLRB considers whether student-athletes should be treated as employees.

Regarding the pending matter, a USC spokesperson declared that a finding that student-athletes are employees “would significantly undermine the educational experiences of our student-athletes.”  The Pac-12 stated it “strongly disagrees” with the assertion made in the filing, and “the general counsel’s allegations are completely at odds with decades of established law and, more importantly, if accepted by the NLRB and the courts, would have a profound and negative impact on college sports and the many student-athletes in our conference.”

The decision reached in this matter will have sweeping consequences across college campuses.  It will also feed the current tide sweeping the approval ratings for unions higher and higher. We will continue to monitor this matter and keep our readers posted.  

Brody and Associates regularly advises its clients on all labor management issues, including union related matters, and provides union-free training.  If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203.454.0560.