The National Labor Relations Board asserted certain college athletes are considered employees of their universities and can unionize under the National Labor Relations Act in a memorandum issued Wednesday afternoon by General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo.
The assertion updated the board's guidance about the statutory rights of athletes as laid down in a 2017 decision regarding Northwestern University football players petitioning the board to unionize. The board had "declined to exercise jurisdiction" over the petition and refused to rule whether the players were considered employees, the memo said.
Abruzzo's memo does clarify that position. She said certain athletes do meet the NLRB's criteria for employee status, a ruling which the memo said has been supported by the Supreme Court.
"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,” the memo said.
The update was inspired by "recent developments" in collegiate athletics, a statement released with Abruzzo's memo said. These developments include the rise of collective activism among college athletes, especially around issues of racial justice, COVID-19 safety protocols and name, image and likeness rights, the memo said.
The Supreme Court's decision that college sports are a profit-making enterprise and that the NCAA's claim of an antitrust exemption on the basis of amateurism is invalid also contributed to and supported the decision, the memo said.
The memo introduced the term "Players at Academic Institutions" in lieu of "student-athlete," a term which Abruzzo asserted the NCAA "created to deprive those individuals of workplace protections." The board will treat the continued use of "student-athlete" as a violation of the NLRA, the statement said.
Abruzzo said the memo is meant to educate the public and the NCAA about the NLRB's position on these issues moving forward.
"I fully expect that this memo will notify the public, especially Players at Academic Institutions, colleges and universities, athletic conferences, and the NCAA, that I will be taking that legal position in future investigations and litigation under the act," Abruzzo said.