Sports

College players sue to be classified as school employees


Students out in California are seeking to have D1 football and basketball players declared employees by the NLRB.

Students out in California are seeking to have D1 football and basketball players declared employees by the NLRB.
Image: Getty Images

Out west, the students are taking matters into their own hands, pushing college athletics another step further into its new athlete-empowered era — and they may be making things a lot more complicated for the NCAA.

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The National College Players Association filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board earlier today, with an aim of achieving employee status for Division I football and basketball players. The charge was filed against the NCAA, the Pac-12 conference, USC, and UCLA.

Despite the NLRB ruling against unionization efforts of Northwestern athletes in 2015, the tides seem to be changing for student athletes following the Supreme Court’s Alston ruling and the introduction of NIL. In September 2021, the general counsel of the NLRB released a memo that appeared to encourage student athletes to bring forth unionization petitions.

As pointed out in Sports Illustrated, this filing is against both a public and a private school, which means that if favorably ruled upon, it could have wide-reaching consequences for athletic programs across the country. The NLRB is only one possible conduit for change for athletes who want to gain employee rights — the College Athlete Right to Organize Act has been introduced in Congress, and the courts are another option, as we saw in the Alston ruling.

A different sect of athletes — slightly less visible than the football and basketball players represented in the NLRB filing — did take to the courts this week. On Monday, a group of current and former female San Diego State student athletes filed a class action lawsuit against the school, alleging that a disparity in financial aid was in violation of Title IX. In the 50 years since Title IX was introduced, there has reportedly never been a claim for monetary damages regarding gender inequity.

The plaintiffs claim that women’s varsity teams were not receiving a proportional amount of scholarship money — 57 percent of SDSU athletes in the 2020-21 school year were women, but women’s teams received just over 50 percent of athletic financial aid. Then, San Diego State cut its women’s rowing team entirely, claiming that they could not continue the program due to a Title IX compliance imbalance. They are suing for $1.2 million in damages, the amount of scholarship money that they say was lost over the past two years, though the lawsuit states that the inequitable pay has been a reality for a decade.

The questions of the ethics and purposes of college sports and the role of sports and school for student athletes are for another day, another article — though they do deserve addressing. But where I see a real concern — one of many — as these cases overlap is the Title IX issue.

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As the NCPA filing only applies to basketball and FBS football teams, there will naturally be an enormous imbalance between male and female athletes who would qualify for employment status. But in the case of employment, it’s unclear how Title IX would apply in this case, and in what ways it would affect the financial aid equity. If football players were salaried, would part of the salary still count as financial aid, or would they be expected to pay their own way through college with the salary? Without the “student-athlete” label on football and basketball players, would we see more women’s teams being cut entirely, as the proportionality of “scholarship dollars” would change with the qualification of some athletes as salaried workers? It’s definitely a possibility that a ruling that could be seen as so positive for the major sports could really hurt the funding for some of the minor sports, cutting women’s teams from schools as they (depending on how a ruling shook out) might no longer have to match up with football scholarship numbers.

This is all just beginning, and any real shifts in the employment vs. scholarship status of student athletes likely won’t come to fruition for another few years, if it comes at all. We’re still operating largely in a theoretical space here. But the student athletes who won’t become employees — because, if the future is reflective of this football and basketball-focused NLRB filing, not all sports will get employment status — may end up paying the price of progress.

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