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NLRB Region deems USC athletes employees, set to pursue unfair labor practice charges

Nakos updated headshotby:Pete Nakos12/15/22


The path to college athletes becoming employees has taken a notable step forward.

The National Labor Relations Board’s Los Angeles region announced Thursday night it has found “merit” in an unfair labor charge claim filed by the college athlete advocacy group National College Players Association on behalf of USC athletes.

The preliminary investigation led to the determination that USC, the Pac-12 and the NCAA might be joint employers of USC football and basketball players. The announcement came on the same day the NCAA tabbed Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker as its next president.

This comes amid the NCAA pleading for Congress to overhaul name, image and likeness guidance. Last week, Sportico reported the NLRB had decided not to pursue a separate unfair labor practices charge filed solely against the NCAA in order to focus on the one made by the NCPA.

“The Region’s determination that the unfair labor practices have merit is based on a determination that USC, the Pac-12 Conference, and the NCAA, as joint employers, have maintained unlawful rules and unlawfully misclassified scholarship basketball and football players as mere ‘student-athletes’ rather than employees entitled to protections under our law,” NLRB general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo said in a statement. “This kind of misclassification deprives these players of their statutory right to organize and to join together to improve their working/playing conditions if they wish to do so. Our aim is to ensure that these players can fully and freely exercise their rights.”

The ruling is the another moment in the college athlete rights movement. The NLRB’s Chicago regional director ruled grant-in-aid football players at Northwestern should be considered employees back in 2014. However, the NLRB didn’t rule in their favor.

Because of the joint employer theory being used in the NCPA filing, the national NLRB can claim jurisdiction over FBS schools. Northwestern’s union petition fell short when the national board declined to assert jurisdiction.

“In the Alston v NCAA ruling last year, the US Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA can’t use the ‘amateurism’ label to break antitrust laws,” NCPA’s executive director Ramogi Huma said in a statement “The same holds true for labor law. The ruling also characterized college athletes’ athletic participation and ‘work’ and ‘labor’ throughout the ruling. We will win this.” 

It is considered unlikely that a settlement will be reached between USC, the Pac-12 and the NCAA. If that holds true, the case would be passed on to an administrative law judge.

Moving forward, a formal hearing will be held. The result of the hearing could be appealed to a five-member NLRB panel. From there, the decision could be appealed in federal court.