The National Labor Relations Board’s Los Angeles region has found “merit” in an unfair labor practice charge seeking employee recognition for USC football and basketball players.
In a statement Thursday, NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo said the region’s findings were based on a determination that the private university, the Pac-12 and the NCAA have collectively “maintained unlawful rules and unlawfully misclassified scholarship basketball and football players as mere ‘student-athletes’ rather than employees entitled to protections under our law.”
The ruling represents the most significant workers’ rights milestone for college athletes since the NLRB’s Chicago region ruled in 2014 that grant-in-aid football players at Northwestern should be considered employees under the National Labor Relations Act. However, the Wildcats’ union petition, which did not name the NCAA, ultimately fell short when the national NLRB board declined to assert jurisdiction in the case.
However, because the USC matter came about through an unfair labor practices charge, the national board would have to assert jurisdiction this time around.
Last week, Sportico reported that the NLRB had decided not to pursue a separate unfair labor practices charge filed just against the NCAA in order to focus on the one made by the National College Players Association, a college athlete advocacy group, on behalf of the USC athletes.
“Gaining employee status and the right to organize is an important part in ending NCAA sports business practices that illegally exploit college athletes’ labor,’” Ramogi Huma, the NCPA’s executive director, said in a statement. Huma had previously helped lead the Northwestern unionization effort.
In an interview with Sportico, Huma suggested that while he expected the ruling as it related to USC, he was pleasantly surprised that the NLRB region also found the Pac-12 and NCAA to be serving as joint employers of the athletes.
“Contrary to the claims presented in the NLRB charges, college athletes are not employees of the NCAA, regardless of sport or division,” the association said in a statement. “The NCAA’s commitment is to student-athletes, and it will continue to vigorously defend any attempts to divide them based on arbitrary standards, as it demeans the hard work and sacrifice of all who participate in college sports.”
Huma said that in order to move the process along, his organization agreed to drop a separate unfair labor practices charge it had concurrently filed on behalf of UCLA football and basketball players.
Unless the NCPA settles the matter with USC, the Pac-12 and the NCAA—which is considered unlikely—the case would next go before an administrative law judge.
The NLRB’s announcement came the same day the NCAA revealed Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker would take over as the association’s next president in March. Given the expected timeline for the administrative process to play out, it is conceivable that Baker will step into job around the same time the labor charge goes to trial.
The judge’s findings could then be appealed to the five-member national NLRB board.
In September 2021, Abruzzo issued a memo advising the agency’s regional directors of her analysis that college athletes should have statutory rights as employees of their universities they play for. Going forward, she would oversee the prosecution of the USC charge.