The general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board issued a memo Wednesday arguing that certain college athletes are workers eligible to bargain collectively, warning the NCAA and colleges not to run afoul of their rights.
Jennifer Abruzzo, who was nominated by President Joe Biden and confirmed by the Senate in July, said she would pursue cases against schools, conferences or other entities that try to tell players they don’t have the same rights as other private-sector workers.
The NLRB’s general counsel acts as a kind of prosecutor, charging employers who commit “unfair labor practices” by violating workers’ rights. The memo puts private colleges and universities around the country on notice that they should not try to classify players as “student athletes” who aren’t covered by the law.
Although the memo does not address union elections directly, it makes clear Abruzzo’s position that certain college players should be eligible to form unions, akin to the one football players on scholarship at Northwestern University tried to create in 2015. Her position could open the door to future attempts by players at private schools to unionize.
If any such players filed a union election petition with the NLRB, it could prompt the NLRB’s five-member board in Washington to review the earlier decision in the Northwestern case, which had initially dodged the question of whether college players were employees under the law.
Abruzzo said in an interview Wednesday that it was likely that the board would have to weigh in on the position she was taking.
“If players at academic institutions feel like they want to choose a union to represent them in discussions with their employer over wages or working conditions in order to improve their current employment situation, then they should be filing [union] petitions,” she said.
Abruzzo said she issued the memo because she wanted the public to know her office’s stance.
“I did want to put the players on notice, but also institutions and the public generally,” she said. “I believe that the statute should be broadly construed so as to protect as many people in this country as possible.”
In the memo, Abruzzo also argued that schools or the NCAA could not legally prevent players from addressing Black Lives Matter or other social issues, on the grounds that players are trying to improve their working conditions. Muzzling them would be a violation of their rights, she said.
She also said she would not use the term “student athlete” ― a term eschewed in her memo ― because she believed it was created to propagate the false idea that college athletes are not workers with rights.
“The term has been conceived, in my mind and in others’, to try to preclude collective activity. It’s nomenclature right now that I hope people shift away from,” she said. “More important than the term is whether employers, particular institutions, which could include conferences and the NCAA, are leading these players to believe, by word or deed, that they are in fact not covered by the statute.”
This is a developing story and will be updated.
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