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NLRB opens its doors to protect college football players as employees

American football player escaping tackle

14 February 2017

On January 31, 2017, the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) released a memo which stated it believed football players at private colleges qualify as employees. The Board declined to answer this question in 2015 when they dismissed a unionization effort by players at Northwestern University, citing concerns of instability if such a decision was rendered that only pertained to private universities. However, a recent decision by the NLRB that found in favor of graduate teaching assistants challenging their status as employees led general counsel to the conclusion that there was no reason football players at private universities should not be considered employees as well.

NLRB general counsel Richard Griffin authored the memorandum, which stated “scholarship football players should be protected by Section 7 [of the National Labor Relations Act].” The significance of the protections of Section 7 cannot be understated, as players may commence actions in regards to how universities protect players from head trauma, unsafe practice methods, and whether players should receive greater compensation for their time and effort.

NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy released a statement in response stating “[t]he general counsel’s memo and personal opinion do not reflect a binding position of the NLRB.” However, the memo allows any interested party to bring unfair labor practice charges to the NLRB without naming a specific player. Although the memo invites players to challenge their universities labor practices, players will need to act quickly, as Griffin’s term will end in November, and the five-member Board will flip from its current Democratic majority when Donald Trump appoints the NLRB’s next general counsel.

Ramogi Huma, who led the unionization efforts at Northwestern, believes the decision is “historic,” and that “[b]y declaring that these athletes are employees, the general counsel is saying that his office is committed to protecting college athletes’ employee rights under the labor laws.

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