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The National Labor Relations Board Changes Course and Recognizes Top-Level CFB Athletes as Employees

Nov 28, 2015; Columbia, SC, USA; Clemson Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) carries for a touchdown during the second half against the South Carolina Gamecocks at Williams-Brice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports
Written by Louie Freda

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The National Labor Relations Board determined that top-level college football players at private universities are employees are entitled to request improved working conditions and even to seek pay for their efforts. In a memorandum Robert F. Griffin, the NLRB’s general counsel, stated that “scholarship football players in Division I Football Bowl Subdivision private-sector colleges and universities are employees” under the National Labor Relations Act. The general counsel’s office argued that the athletes like employees, work full-time hours during the regular season, receive “significant compensation” in exchange for their work, and can be “fired” from the team for poor performance or other factors.

This recognition challenges, but does not overturn, the long-standing NCAA’s amateur ‘student-athlete’ model. By statute the Board does not have jurisdiction over state-run colleges and universities, which constitute 108 of the roughly 125 FBS teams. The board “expressly declined to resolve the issue of whether college football players are employees under the NLRA.” Scholarship FBS athletes in private institutions at the Division One level however, “clearly satisfy the broad definition of employee and the common-law test.”

What does this mean for St. Lawrence student athletes? Legally, nothing. Although St. Lawrence is a private university, we participate at the Division III level in NCCA Football. This new precedent is hardly set in stone. Griffin’s term expires in November and will be replaced by an appointment by President Trump, and the five-member board will transition from a Democrat majority into a Republican board expected to be less supportive to organized labor initiatives.

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Louie Freda