The question of whether or not college athletes should be able to unionize has been a big one over the years. It became a major issue in 2015 when several Northwestern football players sought the ability to unionize but were denied by the National Labor Relations Board. At the time, the board decided that the potentially wide-ranging impacts of unionization on college sports would not have promoted “stability in labor relations.” However, they left the door open for the possibility of unionization in the future.
On Wednesday, the National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel said in a memo that college athletes at private institutions should be considered employees under the National Labor Relations Act. The announcement by NLRB attorney Jennifer Abruzzo, which replaces the 2015 decision, could have a significant impact on the relationship between college athletes at private institutions and their universities. It could mean that athletes would now be subject to labor protections, even if they aren’t forming a collective bargaining unit.
The memo specifically mentions the case of the Northwestern players who attempted to unionize, using them as the key example.
“In short, GC 17-01 concludes, and this memo reiterates, that the scholarship football players at issue in Northwestern University clearly satisfy the broad Section 2(3) definition of employee and the common-law test. Therefore, those football players, and other similarly situated Players at Academic Institutions, should be protected by Section 7 when they act concertedly to speak out about their terms and conditions of employment, or to self-organize, regardless of whether the Board ultimately certifies a bargaining unit.”
Abruzzo also said that the NLRB will consider pursuing “misclassification violations” if private universities attempt to mitigate athlete unionization by classifying them as “student-athletes” in order to avoid providing them with employment protections.
This is just the latest in a series of decisions that have reshaped the relationship between college athletes and the universities that financially benefit from their efforts on the field. Plenty of coaches and admins are going to push back against the idea of treating athletes like employees, but the simple fact is that there is too much money in college athletics for the people doing the work to not receive fair compensation based on their value. This could be a major step towards changing that.