On May 18, 2023, the National Labor Relations Board’s (the Board) regional director in Region 31 issued a complaint against the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the Pac-12 Conference, and the University of Southern California (USC), alleging they violated the National Labor Relations Act (the Act) by misclassifying college football and basketball players as “non-employee student-athletes.” The original charge was issued back in February 2022 and alleged all three entities were in violation of the Act as “joint employers” of these athletes.
While this issue is not necessarily new to higher education, the Board’s decision to issue a complaint—and issue that complaint against all three entities—is new ground, as it departs from a 2015 precedent and paves the way for student-athletes to unionize at potentially both private and now public institutions. Under the Act, the Board has authority over private-sector workers, while state labor boards have jurisdiction over employees at state institutions. However, because the students at issue in Thursday’s complaint would be considered employees of the private NCAA and Pac-12 as well as USC, all three entities would be subject to potential liability as “joint employers.” What this means for public institutions is that there is a real and likely potential that the “joint employer” doctrine will allow for an end run around the Act’s coverage exemption for public-sector entities. As such, all student-athletes could potentially seek to collectively bargain at the NCAA level.
Finding merit to the charge and issuing this complaint is a logical result of General Counsel (GC) Memorandum GC 21-08 issued by the Board’s GC Jennifer Abruzzo in late September 2021. At that time, we issued an alert detailing the GC’s desire to expand the definition of “employee” in order to bring scholarship collegiate athletes under the Act. In February 2022, we issued another alert detailing how USC was likely to be the test case for that endeavor.
Alleging the violation of Section 7 of the Act, Thursday’s complaint arises from charges filed by the National College Players Association, a nonprofit advocacy association founded by former UCLA football player Ramogi Huma. The charge and complaint asserted that USC, the Pac-12, and NCAA misclassified student-athletes in order to deny them their rights under the Act, including the right to speak about compensation and working conditions. In addition to the alleged misclassification issue, the complaint alleges that USC illegally obstructed athletes’ organizing by “maintaining unlawful rules and policies in its handbook, including restricting communications with third parties, in the media, etc.”
Colleges and universities may be tempted to minimize this issue by thinking that the shift to seeing student-athletes as employees would affect them only in the event their athletes attempt to form a union. That is not the case. While a Board determination that student-athletes are employees could lead to a renewed effort by college athletes to organize, the GC has already cautioned (and made good on that warning) that the Board will seek to issue unfair labor practice charges against colleges and universities that misclassify student-athletes as “non-employees” or engage in other violations of the Act. For example, the GC has previously made clear that protections afforded by the Act apply to concerted activity such as expressions of support for social justice issues and other advocacy. As such, higher education institutions would be wise to tread lightly into these waters when they arise, because where employee status exists, concerted efforts of those employees to speak their minds or speak out on certain issues will be viewed as protected under the Act.
The hearing on the Board’s complaint is set for November 7, 2023.
For assistance or answers to questions about this legal insight, please contact the authors or any member of the Steptoe & Johnson Labor Relations Team.