NLRB memo: College football players are employees

  • FILE - Northwestern football players gather during practice at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside campus in Kenosha, Wisc., in this Monday, Aug. 17, 2015, file photo. College football players and some other athletes in revenue-generating sports are employees of their schools, the National Labor Relations Board's top lawyer said in a memo Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021, that would allow the players to unionize and otherwise negotiate over their working conditions. The nine-page NLRB memo revisited a case involving Northwestern University football players who were thwarted from forming a union when the board said that taking their side 'would not promote stability in labor relations.'

    FILE - Northwestern football players gather during practice at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside campus in Kenosha, Wisc., in this Monday, Aug. 17, 2015, file photo. College football players and some other athletes in revenue-generating sports are employees of their schools, the National Labor Relations Board's top lawyer said in a memo Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021, that would allow the players to unionize and otherwise negotiate over their working conditions. The nine-page NLRB memo revisited a case involving Northwestern University football players who were thwarted from forming a union when the board said that taking their side 'would not promote stability in labor relations.' Associated Press

  • FILE - In this Feb. 11, 2020, file photo, NCAA President Mark Emmert testifies during a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing on intercollegiate athlete compensation on Capitol Hill in Washington. College football players and some other athletes in revenue-generating sports are employees of their schools, the National Labor Relations Board's top lawyer said in a memo Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021, that would allow the players to unionize and otherwise negotiate over their working conditions.

    FILE - In this Feb. 11, 2020, file photo, NCAA President Mark Emmert testifies during a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing on intercollegiate athlete compensation on Capitol Hill in Washington. College football players and some other athletes in revenue-generating sports are employees of their schools, the National Labor Relations Board's top lawyer said in a memo Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021, that would allow the players to unionize and otherwise negotiate over their working conditions. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 9/29/2021 2:22 PM

College football players and many other athletes are employees of their schools, the National Labor Relations Board's top lawyer said in a memo Wednesday that would allow players at private universities to unionize and otherwise negotiate over their working conditions.


NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo also threatened action against schools, conferences and the NCAA if they continue to use the term 'student-athlete,' saying that it was created to disguise the employment relationship with college athletes and discourage them from pursuing their rights.

 

'The freedom to engage in far-reaching and lucrative business enterprises makes players at academic institutions much more similar to professional athletes who are employed by a team to play a sport,' the memo said.

Abruzzo's memo does not immediately alter the existing dynamic between the schools and their athletes, who can receive scholarships and limited cost of attendance funding in exchange for playing sports. Instead, it is legal advice for the NLRB should a case come to it for a decision.

The NLRB has authority only over private businesses, leaving the majority of major athletic programs outside its purview.

Gabe Feldman, the director of the Tulane Sports Law Program, said that while the memo has no immediate effect it is 'yet another threat' to the business model of the NCAA, its conferences and its schools, which rely on unpaid athletes to reap billions in revenues, primarily from football and basketball.

'It's particularly meaningful given the rest of the landscape in college athletics,' he said. 'All signs point to an increasingly at-risk and fragile system of college athletics.'

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Neither the NCAA nor representatives for the five largest athletic conferences responded to a request for comment from The Associated Press.

The NLRB's new stance is the latest in a string of changes threatening to upend the U.S. model of amateur sports. The NCAA, the nation's largest governing body with oversight of some 450,000 athletes, is reeling from a recent Supreme Court decision and in July cleared the way for athletes to earn money based on their celebrity. It is also planning to overhaul its constitution, which contains tenets that have been in place for a century.

It also comes with athletes growing more outspoken about their treatment amid concerns about equity. A number of players had stinging criticism in March for how the men's and women's basketball tournaments were clearly different when it came to investment, branding and support from the NCAA.

The nine-page NLRB memo revisited a case involving Northwestern football players who were thwarted from forming a union when the board in 2015 said that taking their side 'would not promote stability in labor relations.'

But Abruzzo's memo noted that much has changed since then, including the Supreme Court decision this year that lifted restrictions on some forms of education-related compensation for college athletes.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

'The decision is likely a precursor to more changes to come in college athletics," she wrote.

Abruzzo noted that players across the country had engaged in collective action following the killing of George Floyd - action that 'directly concerns terms and conditions of employment, and is protected concerted activity.' Players also banded together to protect their rights during the recent pandemic, she said.

'Players at academic institutions have gained more power as they better understand their value in generating billions of dollars in revenue for their colleges and universities, athletic conferences, and the NCAA,' she wrote.

'And this increased activism and demand for fair treatment has been met with greater support from some coaches, fans, and school administrators. Players at academic institutions who engage in concerted activities to improve their working conditions have the right to be protected from retaliation.'

The memo issued by Abruzzo, who was appointed by President Joe Biden, reversed a 2017 memo by her predecessor, an appointee of President Donald Trump. That decision had, in turn, overturned a memo of the previous general counsel, who was appointed by President Barack Obama.

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AP College Football Writer Ralph D. Russo contributed to this report.

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