In 2020, activism among players at academic Institutions sky-rocketed. In addition to social rights issues, player groups sought open communication between players and university and NCAA leadership, and, ultimately, a “college football players’ association” to represent them.
And these players at Academic Institutions have been gaining 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. And their litigation is being closely followed by employment law communities.
In February 2021, General Counsel for the National Labor Relations Board, Jennifer Abruzzo, issued a memorandum (GC 21-08) on the status of college athletes as “employees” under the National Labor Relations Act. Statutory Rights of Players at Academic Institutions (Student-Athletes) Under the National Labor Relations Act,.
The student athletes also found support from the United States Supreme Court when it decided Alston v NCAA 141 S. Ct. 2141 (2021) in June of last year. SCOTUS recognized that amateurism in college sports has changed significantly in recent decades, and ruled that the NCAA can’t use the ‘amateurism’ label to break antitrust laws.
Justice Kavanaugh, in his concurring opinion in Alston, went further. He strongly suggested that the NCAA’s remaining compensation rules also violate antitrust laws and questioned “whether the NCAA and its member colleges can continue to justify not paying student athletes a fair share” of the billions of dollars in revenue that they generate. Moreover, he suggested that one mechanism by which colleges and students could resolve the difficult questions regarding compensation is by “engag[ing] in collective bargaining.”
This SCOTUS decision is likely a precursor to more changes to come in college athletics. Specifically, commentators argue that, as courts “continue to chip away at NCAA restrictions on benefits to student-athletes, more compensation that is untethered to academics brings student-athletes more fully within ‘employee status’ under the law.”
After these successful legal developments, a group that advocates for college athletes in California filed unfair labor practice charges in February 2022, with the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of football players and men’s and women’s basketball players at UCLA and the University of Southern California. The charges, made by the National College Players Association, also name the NCAA and the Pac-12 Conference, essentially claiming that the association and the conference jointly employ the athletes along with the schools.
The filings follow a similar effort started by another athlete-advocacy group, the College Basketball Players Association, which filed a charge against the NCAA. Both bids come in the wake of the National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel memorandum in September.
Following this filing, on December 15, 2022, the Regional Director of the Los Angeles Region of the National Labor Relations Board the NLRB’s Division of Advice has directed the NLRB Region to pursue the NCPA’s unfair labor practice (ULP) charges against USC, the Pac-12 Conference, and the NCAA as joint, statutory employers of USC football players, men’s basketball players, and women’s basketball players.
At the request of NLRB’s Division of Advice, the NCPA agreed to withdraw its ULP charge against UCLA, a state funded school, but will continue against USC a private institution, and the NLRB’s Los Angeles Region will now take action to force a settlement with the employers to end the ULPs or prosecute the employers and go to trial.
If upheld, USC football and basketball players’ employee status under joint employers (college,conference, and NCAA) will ultimately apply to all FBS football players and Division I basketball players at private schools.
If the Pac-12 and NCAA are found to be employers, it could open the doors for athletes at other Football Bowl Subdivision schools to argue that they are employees, even if they attend public schools such as UCLA.
The NCPA’s case with the NLRB is the latest in a string of unionization efforts among college athletes and their advocates. Another recent effort came in 2014 and 2015, when Northwestern football players attempted to unionize. The NLRB declined to accept jurisdiction in the case, however, saying at the time that it did not have jurisdiction over public schools.
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