The National Labor Relations Board released a memo Wednesday stating that college football players and many other athletes should be regarded as employees, paving the way for athletes to unionize and negotiate 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, while simultaneously pursuing business ventures to capitalize on their fame and increase their income,” 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.
In response to the memo, 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 a 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.”
The NCAA is reeling after Supreme Court ruled unanimously in July that the NCAA has illegally restricted education-based benefits that could be used as compensation to student-athletes.
Abruzzo’s memo noted that the Supreme Court decision was likely “likely a precursor to more changes to come in college athletics.”
Abruzzo noted that players across the country had been more engaged in political activism following the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020. Players also banded together to protect their rights during the recent pandemic, she said.
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. (AP)
“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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.