The National Collegiate Athletic Association, Pac-12 Conference, and University of Southern California face federal allegations of violating labor law by failing to treat collegiate athletes as employees.
A National Labor Relations Board regional director in Los Angeles alleged in a complaint Thursday that the school, conference, and athletic association jointly employ student football and basketball players, whom they illegally misclassified as “non-employee student-athletes.”
The case opens a lane for collegiate athletes to unionize at a time when labor organizing and strike action in higher education is surging, a potentially major shakeup to a business that generates billions in revenue for universities.
Naming the three entities as joint employers of football and basketball players at USC is key to NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo’s legal strategy for changing the law on collegiate athletes’ employment status. Doing so could give the agency jurisdiction over collegiate athletes at public universities because they also would be considered employees of the private NCAA and Pac-12.
The NLRB has authority over private-sector workers, while state labor boards have jurisdiction over employees at state institutions.
The agency’s legal arm argued for collegiate athletes’ status as employees during the Obama administration in a case involving Northwestern University’s football team. But the NLRB declined in 2015 to rule in the case, saying it wouldn’t promote labor stability for the board to get involved when most college football teams were from public schools and thus outside its authority.
Thursday’s complaint said the Pac-12 and NCAA “possessed and/or exercised control over the labor relations policies” for USC’s football and basketball players, though it contains little detail on the joint employment allegation.
The athletes allegedly were misclassified to deny them their labor law rights and interfere with their organizing activities, according to the charging document.
NLRB prosecutors also claimed that USC’s handbook and social media policy for athletes—which includes guidelines for interviews such as “Be positive” and “Smile and have fun"—illegally obstructs athletes’ organizing.
“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,” NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo said in a statement. “Our aim is to ensure that these players, as workers like any other, can fully and freely exercise their rights.”
An NCAA representative said the complaint is politically motivated and won’t help college athletes succeed, as it would replace a system that allows them to earn “real money” while earning a college degree with one that would permit them to be “fired after a few bad games in the middle of the season.”
“The Association believes student-athletes, school leaders and the people’s representatives in Congress are best fit to make such wide-ranging changes to college sports,” NCAA spokesman Tim Buckley said in a statement.
The complaint stems from charges filed by the National College Players Association, an advocacy association founded and led by former University of California-Los Angeles football player Ramogi Huma.
Parties involved—Huma; the Pac-12 Conference’s attorney, James Crowley of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP; and USC’s counsel, and Adam Abrahms of Epstein Becker & Green PC—didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
The NLRB general counsel’s office found merit to the charges in December, which meant the agency would issue the complaint unless the parties settled.
The case is Univ. of S. Cal., N.L.R.B. Reg’l Dir., Case 31-CA-290326, complaint issued 5/18/23.
—With assistance from Josh Eidelson (Bloomberg)
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