NLRB Says Private College Football Players Can Unionize

According to the top lawyer from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), college football players and some other athletes in revenue-producing sports at private universities are employees of their schools, thus allowing those players to unionize and negotiate over their working conditions.

Additionally, NLRB general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo also threatened action against schools, conferences, and the NCAA if they continue to use the term “student-athlete,” saying it was created to obscure the employment relationship with college athletes and discourage them from pursuing their rights under the National Labor Relations Act. Abruzzo notes that the act and NLRB law “supports the conclusion that certain players at academic institutions are statutory employees, who have the right to act collectively to improve their terms and conditions of employment.”

nlrbIn a memo released last week, Abruzzo compared college athletes’ 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, while simultaneously pursuing business ventures.”

She went on to add that she hopes the memo will help to educate athletes, schools, conferences, and others through the college athletic landscape regarding name, image, and likeness issues.

In a statement released later Wednesday, the NCAA said it believes “college athletes are students who compete against other students, not employees who compete against other employees.”

“NCAA member schools and conferences continue to make great strides in modernizing rules to benefit college athletes,” the NCAA said in its statement. “Like other students on a college or university campus who receive scholarships, those who participate in college sports are students. Both academics and athletics are part of a total educational experience that is unique to the United States and vital to the holistic development of all who participate.”

“This is not a binding opinion. This is an advisory opinion expressing an opinion that has been expressed before, that college athletes should be recognized as employees,” said Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane University. “So it will not have any immediate impact on college athletes, but given everything else that is happening and all the external pressures from Congress, from state laws, from lawsuits, this is just another signal that the current collegiate model may need to change, and if the NCAA doesn’t change it, change may be forced upon it.”

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