NLRB says student athletes can collectively bargain

Rebecca Rainey

Student athletes at private colleges are protected under federal labor law and can collectively bargain, National Labor Relations Board General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo said Wednesday, a win for players as several states and the Supreme Court have cleared the way for them to earn some compensation.

The NLRA and common law “fully support" that college athletes are employees under the National Labor Relations Act "who have the right to act collectively to improve their terms and conditions of employment,” Abruzzo said in a statement on the policy change.

In a memo to the labor board’s regional arms Wednesday, Abruzzo also clarified that misclassifying players as “student-athletes” or leading them to believe they are not protected under the National Labor Relations Act would be considered a labor violation.

“My intent in issuing this memo is to help educate the public, especially Players at Academic Institutions, colleges and universities, athletic conferences, and the NCAA, about the legal position that I will be taking regarding employee status and misclassification in appropriate cases," Abruzzo, who was appointed by President Joe Biden, said in a statement.

Legal precedent: Abruzzo argues her position is backed by the Supreme Court’s ruling in June that found that the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s hard limits on athlete compensation violate the nation’s antitrust laws, expanding the types of education-related compensation student athletes can receive.

“The freedom to engage in far-reaching and lucrative business enterprises makes Players at Academic Institutions much more similar to professional athletes who are employed by a team to play a sport, while simultaneously pursuing business ventures to capitalize on their fame and increase their income,” Abruzzo said in the memo.

Several states, including Florida, Georgia and Texas, have enacted laws that allow college athletes to earn money from the use of their name, image and likeness.

Background: Abruzzo's memo reinstates a policy recognizing most student athletes as employees that was issued by former NLRB general counsel Richard Griffin during the Obama administration.

Trump-appointed general counsel Peter Robb later rescinded that memo in December 2017.