NLRB memo says athletes at private universities should be treated as employees
February 7, 2017 12:13 AM
Northwestern's Justin Jackson pushes away Pitt's Dennis Briggs as he carries in the third quarter Wednesday in the Pinstripe Bowl. Northwestern players have been at the forefront of a movement to unionize college athletes.
By Omari Sankofa II / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A memo published by the National Labor Relations Boards’ general counsel last week could increase the likelihood that high-level football players at private institutions will one day be able to unionize — and further push for employee rights.
Richard Griffin, the NLRB’s general counsel, sent a memo Wednesday to the board’s regional directors stating Division I Football Bowl Subdivision football players who attend private universities — schools such as Duke in the ACC, Northwestern in the Big Ten and Baylor in the Big 12 — should be classified as employees. The classification would include full workers’ rights, including protection against unfair labor practices and perhaps a greater share of the NCAA’s annual $10 billion-plus in revenue.
The memo does not reverse an August 2015 NLRB decision in which it declined to certify a union sought by Northwestern University football players. But Kain Colter, who helped form the College Athlete Player Association labor union three years ago, said the memo could lead to a greater effort from football players who attend other private universities.
The memo states that though players still cannot unionize, they are entitled to campaign for their own interests as employees, including asking for pay.
“It was important for the players to know whether they are protected as according to the National Labor Relations Board,” said Colter, a former Northwestern football player. “That question wasn’t answered in the board’s initial ruling. I think what it does, it invites people to start filling out their labor practice charges and it signals that the general counsel is ready to prosecute any of these unfair labor practice charges.”
Colter, a member of the College Athlete Player Association’s board of directors, sought to unionize Northwestern football players in 2014 in what has become a significant case in the push for college athletes’ rights. The United Steelworkers union, based in Pittsburgh, pledged to cover all legal costs for the union, which theoretically would cover football and basketball players at major private universities to organize. Public schools are governed by state labor organizations, not the NLRB.
In 2014, Colter said an “overwhelming majority” of Northwestern football players supported the idea of the union. Though the NLRB regional office in Chicago initially ruled that scholarship football players are employees with a right to unionize, the decision was appealed by Northwestern, and later reversed by the full NLRB board.
Colter declined to discuss the College Athlete Player Association’s strategy in light of the memo, but he said he hopes it is a positive indicator of how the dialogue regarding college athletes as employees could progress.
“It’s definitely a huge blow to amateurism and the facade that players are not employees,” he said. “And that’s what we’ve been fighting for this whole time, just trying to finally get that employee status designation and have these protections that all these other Americans have....”
Robert Morris athletic director Craig Coleman said he can sympathize with athletes at so-called “Power Five” schools, which belong to the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC conferences. They sometimes play in stadiums filled with 100,000 paying fans, for conferences that earn hundreds of millions per year from television rights deals. But he questioned whether unionization is necessary for college athletes pushing for employee rights, citing gains made in recent years.
Recent NCAA rule changes allow schools to cover athlete expenses beyond tuition, room and board, such as transportation, personal expenses, and unlimited meals and snacks. For athletes at Pitt, that means an extra $3,296 a year.
“Those things are gradually coming to be, and they’re gradually becoming available to them,” Coleman said. “I understand their goals and I don’t begrudge them, I just don’t think it needs to be done through a labor relationship.”
Through unionization, the College Athlete Player Association hopes to secure protections for college athletes, including guaranteed coverage for sports-related injuries for former and current players, enhancing player safety, improving graduation rates and allowing players to receive paid sponsorships.
Coleman fears that as Power Five athletes continue to push for employee rights, non-Power Five schools could be disadvantaged. He noted that Robert Morris, a Football Championship Subdivision school, does not generate the same amount of revenue as FBS schools such as Alabama and Penn State.
“We’re not bringing in TV rights, we’re not making that type of income on our sporting events,” he said. “In fact, in many cases we’re losing money ... the impact it would have on our school would really depend on what the negotiation items were.”
One thing the College Athlete Player Association will keep an eye on is the Trump administration’s stance on college athletes securing worker rights.
President Barack Obama appointed Griffin as the NLRB’s general counsel in August 2013. His term ends in November, and the NLRB confirmed in a release that Griffin’s memo is not binding. A new general counsel appointed by President Donald Trump could bring a different stance on the issue, and Colter said the College Athlete Player Association will continue to assess the landscape.
Additionally, Congress can nullify any ruling by the NLRB, and historically has been known to been protect major sports properties. Northwestern’s argument against classifying student athletes as employees was backed by six Republican members of Congress in June 2014.
“That’s all to be seen in the near future and hopefully this thing can keep its legs and move forward from this,” Colter said.
Omari Sankofa II: email@example.com, 412-263-1349 and Twitter @omarisankofa.
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