A memo issued by the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Tuesday states that college football players at private universities are employees and entitled to the protections of that distinction, including efforts to form unions.
The memo, written by Richard Griffin and sent to NLRB regional directors, represents a blow to the NCAA’s amateurism model and calls for scholarship athletes at private schools such as Northwestern, Notre Dame and Stanford to be protected by law if they attempt to seek better employment conditions.
However, the impact of the Griffin’s memo could be muted. According to the New York Times, the memo doesn’t “carry the force of law like a full board finding.” The NLRB’s 2015 decision, in which it declined to assert jurisdiction over the Northwestern’s football team’s efforts to unionize, remains intact.
“The general counsel’s memo and personal opinion do not reflect a binding position of the NLRB,” Donald Remy, chief legal officer for the NCAA, told the Times. “As we have stated before and he was obligated to acknowledge, the NLRB previously decided that it would not exercise jurisdiction regarding the employment context of student-athletes and their schools. The general counsel’s memo does not change that decision and does not allow student-athletes to unionize.”
Still, advocates for college athletes’ rights view the move as a signal that the discussion regarding their employment status is far from over.
Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players Association and one of the leaders of Northwestern’s union push, told Inside Higher Ed that the memo “brings college athletes one step closer to justice.”
The discussion could turn in a different direction after Griffin’s term as NLRB general counsel ends in November. The position is a presidential appointment, so President Trump’s appointee could be less sympathetic to organized labor. The Times reports that the board will also flip to a Republican majority under the new administration.
“A new board has the potential to look at this issue very differently, and that would limit any long-term implications,” former NLRB chair Wilma Liebman told the Times.