NLRB Files Complaint Against USC Aiming to Make Some College Athletes Employees

by Riley Overend 5

May 27th, 2023 College, News, Pac-12

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) filed a complaint last week in Los Angeles against USC, the Pac-12, and the NCAA seeking to reclassify college football and basketball players as employees instead of student athletes.

The next step in the case is a hearing on Nov. 7, where the NLRB will argue that USC’s media policies violate federal labor law. The school’s handbook instructs athletes to “smile” and “be positive” during interviews and not to post anything that “would embarrass USC, your team, or your family” on social media.

A ruling in the NLRB’s favor would pave the way for some college athletes at private schools to unionize and collectively bargain for a share of media revenue or expanded health care benefits. Public schools are subject to state law as opposed to the NLRB, but they could also be impacted if the NLRB judge upholds the joint employer designation. While Democrats currently hold a 3-1 majority on the board (with one GOP vacancy), coming to a ruling can be a years-long process that is often followed by a lengthy appeals process.

“The conduct of USC, the Pac-12 Conference, and the NCAA, as joint employers, deprives their players of their statutory right to organize and to join together to improve their working and playing conditions if they wish to do so,” NLRB general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo said in a statement. “Our aim is to ensure that these players, as workers like any other, can fully and freely exercise their rights.”

Abruzzo first made her stance on this issue clear in September of 2021, when she released a memo stating that “certain” college athletes are statutory employees who deserve the right to unionize, among other protections. Back in 2017, the NLRB issued a memo stating that football players at high-level private universities were employees, but it declined to intervene in a specific case involving Northwestern University and the Trump administration withdrew the memo later that year.

“The complaint issued by the Region today appears to be driven by a political agenda and is the wrong way to help student-athletes succeed,” NCAA spokesperson Tim Buckley said. “Many student-athletes are earning real money in today’s world of college sports while also earning a college degree worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some within the NLRB seemingly would replace that system with one that a young adult could get fired from after a few bad games in the middle of the season, all while turning a blind eye to its impact on Title IX and international student-athletes, as well as the instability in college sports that would result by finding only basketball and football student-athletes at private schools are employees.”

The NLRB’s formal complaint is the latest legal challenge threatening the NCAA since successful lawsuits from Ed O’Bannon and Shawne Alston deemed the organization subject to ordinary antitrust scrutiny. Johnson v. NCAA, which is currently being reviewed by the Third Circuit, is also seeking employee status for college athletes. The worry from fans of non-revenue sports such as swimming is that their favorite teams could be on the chopping block if athletic department operating costs increase across the country.

“The impact of such a monumental change in the law would affect not just the football and basketball programs at USC targeted by the NLRB General Counsel, but the more than 20 different sports in the Conference that all operate under the same rules and academic principles,” the Pac-12 said in a statement. Notably, the USC is leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten along with UCLA in 2024.

The NCAA has tried to convince Congress to enact legislation defining college athletes as non-employees, but even with former Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker now leading the organization, that appears to be an unlikely escape route.

“Now that the complaint has finally been filed, the next step in the process is an actual hearing, where USC is looking forward to presenting the complete facts about its athletics programs,” a USC spokesperson said in a statement. “These facts, along with 75 years of precedent, establish that our student-athletes — including those on our football and basketball teams — are not employees.”

Another lawsuit, House v. NCAA, is looking for NIL backpay and broadcast revenue sharing totaling more than $1 billion.

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12 days ago

I don’t want my tax dollars to go to an athlete at a public university to be an employee doing their sport. They already get preferential admission, scholarships, and money. Playing a sport is not the definition of employee.

Reply to  Anonymous
9 days ago

USC is private, not public

13 days ago

The arrogance of organizations and individuals to gain notoriety and feed inflated egos by destroying college athletics is threatening the future existence of them. Unless you are football or basketball your future is being taken by these organizations and individuals without a share of voice by any athlete who has believed, dreamed and worked tirelessly to compete at this level. When did we become so obsessed with destroying college athletics?

Steve Nolan
Reply to  Streamline
12 days ago

Why should football and basketball players subsidize the dreams of kids in other sports?

13 days ago

another blow to whatever is left of USC’s swim legacy

About Riley Overend

Riley is an associate editor interested in the stories taking place outside of the pool just as much as the drama between the lane lines. A 2019 graduate of Boston College, he arrived at SwimSwam in April of 2022 after three years as a sports reporter and sports editor at newspapers …

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