The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

NLRB General Counsel Releases Memo on Employee Status for Student Athletes

On September 29, National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo released a memorandum stating her position that student athletes (or “Players at Academic Institutions,” as she refers to them in the memo) are employees under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and are afforded all statutory protections as prescribed under the law. Abruzzo declares, “The broad language of Section 2(3) of the [NLRA], the policies underlying the NLRA, Board law, and the common law fully support the conclusion that certain Players at Academic Institutions are statutory employees, who have the right to act collectively to improve their terms and conditions of employment.”

Abruzzo also states that misclassifying such individuals as non-employees and leading them to believe they are not afforded protections under the NLRA has a “chilling effect” on Section 7 activity. She said she would consider this misclassification an independent violation of Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA. Abruzzo further stated that the intent of the memo is to “educate the public, especially Players at Academic Institutions, colleges and universities, athletic conferences, and the NCAA” about her position in future appropriate cases.

The memo revives issues surrounding employment status of student athletes that the NLRB has previously ruled on. In March 2014, the NLRB’s Regional Director in Chicago ruled that Northwestern players receiving football scholarships are employees and have a right to organize under the NLRA. In August 2015, the NLRB released a unanimous decision dismissing the representation petition filed by a group of Northwestern football players seeking to unionize. In doing so, however, the board’s decision did not definitively resolve the issue of whether college athletes are employees and have a protected right to unionize under the NLRA. After considering arguments of both parties in the case and various amici, including CUPA-HR, the board declined to assert jurisdiction on the issue, stating that “asserting jurisdiction would not promote labor stability [because the] Board does not have jurisdiction over state-run colleges and universities, which constitute” the vast majority of the teams. The board noted, however, its “decision is narrowly focused to apply only to the players in this case and does not preclude reconsideration of this issue in the future.” Another issue in the Northwestern decision was the board’s lack of jurisdiction over “walk-on” players who do not receive scholarships. It remains to be seen how Abruzzo will overcome in future cases the two jurisdictional obstacles identified in Northwestern.

CUPA-HR will keep members apprised of NLRB actions and cases that may prompt the agency to rule on the issue regarding student athlete employment status.


The CUPA-HR office will be closed Fridays through August 19.