National Labor Relations Board classifies private college athletes as employees, opening door to unionization

Top line

Collegiate athletes at private establishments should be classified among employees entitled to legal protections, the National Labor Relations Board said on Wednesday in a move that could open the door to unionization.


The agency’s general counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo, Posted a note to all field offices outlining the change, meaning college players are protected when it comes to getting organized and talking about their conditions, such as describe by the national law on industrial relations.

Abruzzo has also made it clear that they should not be called “student-athletes”, arguing that this is a classification error that could lead them to believe they do not have such protections.

The policy change means that university-level athletes could now have the right to unionize.

Key context

It comes after the unanimous Supreme Court ruling in June against the NCAA that allowed student-athletes to receive educational benefits – but didn’t pay them directly to play on a team. Many college level athletes become more vocal about their rights last year in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and subsequent nationwide protests, which Abruzzo cited in its memo. The NLRB had previously fired an attempt by members of the Northwestern University football team to unionize in 2015.

Further reading

The question of the “employees” of a university athlete is taken up by the best lawyer of the NLRB“(Bloomberg Law)

University athletes in private schools are employees who can unionize, NLRB general counsel says“(CBS Sports)

College athletes should be able to unionize, says Labor Relations Board“(News week)

BREAKING: NLRB General Counsel Says College Athletes Are Employees“(Law 360)

“Supreme Court Rules Against NCAA Student-Athlete Compensation” (Forbes)

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