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Dive Brief:

  • The University of Southern California, NCAA and Pac-12 Conference are violating federal law by not classifying college athletes as employees, the National Labor Relations Board’s Los Angeles branch alleged last week.
  • The NLRB filed a complaint against the university and two athletics entities Thursday, seeking to have an administrative judge declare that players are employees. A hearing before the judge is set for November.
  • Should the board be successful in its complaint, it could open the door for some athletes to unionize.

Dive Insight:

The NLRB complaint is one of the latest chapters in the legal saga of college athletes seeking to be recognized as employees.

Supporters of the concept argue that athletes — specifically at the top Division I level — rake in significant cash for colleges, but cannot take a cut themselves because of unfair policies. 

Meanwhile, critics of the idea, like the NCAA, allege that if institutions start categorizing players as employees, then it would erode the amateur nature of collegiate sports. This defense has generated some skepticism, as college athletics at the highest levels can resemble professional sports. 

Federal officials are beginning to step in on these issues.

In 2021, NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo issued a memo that said college athletes are employees under the National Labor Relations Act.

More than a year later, the Los Angeles NLRB said it found merit in a complaint USC football and basketball players filed in February 2022 that alleged the university, NCAA and Pac-12 were flouting their rights under federal labor law.

Last week’s action from NLRB is part of that case. 

The complaint targets USC policies that require athletes to “be positive” during media interviews and post only privately on social media. The NRB alleges these rules are part of an illegal handbook maintained by USC, the NCAA and Pac-12. 

Moreover, not being classified as employees denies athletes’ rights to unionize, the agency said.

“The conduct of USC, the Pac-12 Conference, and the NCAA, as joint employers, deprives their players of their statutory right to organize and to join together to improve their working and playing conditions if they wish to do so,” Abruzzo said in a statement Thursday. “Our aim is to ensure that these players, as workers like any other, can fully and freely exercise their rights.”

The NLRB wants an administrative law judge to order the NCAA, USC and Pac-12 to “cease and desist from misclassifying” players as student-athletes and instead label them as employees.

Tim Buckley, the NCAA’s senior vice president of external affairs, said in a statement Monday that the association believes the rules governing colleges need an update to better meet athletes’ needs. But the NLRB complaint “appears to be driven by a political agenda,” Buckley said.

“Many student-athletes are earning real money in today’s world of college sports while also earning a college degree worth hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Buckley said. “Some within the NLRB seemingly would replace that system with one that a young adult could get fired from after a few bad games in the middle of the season.”

An emailed statement from USC on Monday said the complaint “is neither new nor surprising; it simply perpetuates a position that the National Labor Relations Board erroneously staked out many months ago.” 

USC said it is looking forward to presenting facts in the case that will establish athletes are not employees. 

“USC also is proud of the resources and support it provides to its student-athletes to help them build life-long skills through their athletic pursuits,” the statement said.

This includes “millions of dollars annually in athletics-related financial aid across all 21 of its intercollegiate teams, millions of dollars annually in the form of professional development to support their future in the workplace, tutoring, nutrition, mentorship, academic support, and leadership opportunities,” it said.

Meanwhile, the Pac-12 conference publicly rebutted the NLRB last week, saying the complaint was “completely at odds with decades of established law” and stands to threaten the broader collegiate sports system. The Pac-12 includes Division 1 teams across 24 sports. 

The NLRB “would have USC treat its football and basketball players as workers who must be paid a wage, not students who receive scholarships or who desire to participate in extracurricular sports on a voluntary basis,” the Pac-12 said.

The conference said “monumental” changes to law would not just affect USC football and basketball programs “but the more than 20 different sports in the Conference that all operate under the same rules and academic principles.”