Nontoxic Bullets? NLRB General Counsel Wants to Ruin College Football by Calling Athletes “Employees”

Johnnie Poe, Princeton footballer. NYPL Public Collection.

One of my favorite twitter accounts is @ACrimeADay, which reminds us of arcane things that are against the law. A few recent gems:

  • 18 USC §1865 & 36 CFR §2.16(f) make it a federal crime to make an unreasonable noise while a horse is passing by in a national park.
  • 42 USC §271(a) & 21 CFR §1250.44(b) make it a federal crime for an airline to provide a brush for the common use of passengers on a flight.
  • 16 USC §707 & 50 CFR §21.55(c)(2) make it a federal crime to kill a barn owl in Hawaii by shooting it, unless you use nontoxic bullets.

There are lots of ridiculous laws. If it’s up to the NLRB’s new General Counsel, we’re about to see another one — and it may ruin college football as we know it.

In a memo issued last week, the NLRB’s General Counsel and chief prosecutor, Jennifer Abruzzo, announced that her office now take the position that college student athletes are employees of their universities, with full rights to bargain collectively, strike, and file unfair labor practice charges.

Her analysis is based on a Right to Control Test. She thinks that universities control the working conditions of student-athletes in a way that makes them employees under the test. She explains this in the memo, if you care to read the details.

The memo also takes the position that universities’ use of the phrase “student-athlete” instead of “employee” is itself an unfair labor practice because it intentionally misleads these students employees into thinking that they do not have Section 7 rights. Her position is directly contrary to current Board law, established in Velox Express (discussed here).

And it gets worse. Because the NLRB has jurisdiction over private employers but not public ones, her position applies only to private universities, not public ones. That means — if her memo becomes law — that Northwestern’s football players are employees, but Ohio State’s are not.

And she sets up the NCAA as a joint employer, alleging that it too controls the working conditions of these students.

Abruzzo is a former union lawyer, so it’s not surprising that she subscribes to the worldview that everyone’s an employee, but for this to be the official prosecutorial position of the Board is inane. With Democratic Board appointees now holding a 3-2 majority on the Board, it feels like only a matter of time before the right case comes along and the NLRB rubber stamps her position as Board law.

Let’s imagine how this plays out in real life:

  • It’s the end of a long practice, and two players tell Coach they’re not going to run that last required wind sprint because they think it’s just too much. Coach says to run anyway because I’m the coach. Coach disciplines the players by not playing them or demoting them on the depth chart or whatever. Based on the memo, that might be an unfair labor practice because the employer is taking adverse action against employees for engaging in protected concerted activity.
  • Coach tells his team not to criticize the program publicly because we’re a team and we need to speak with one voice. Based on the memo, that could be an unfair labor practice because employers cannot prohibit employees from speaking out collectively about working conditions.
  • When the fifth- and sixth-string senior running backs refuse to show up for practice as a way of protesting Coach’s decision not to play them in last week’s blowout win, Coach tells them they’re off the team. Under the Abruzzo memo, that might be an unfair labor practice.
  • At a press conference, the athletic director is asked about team discipline and responds that these are “student-athletes” and not “employees” and they’ll do what Coach says and they’ll do it quietly, without objection, if they want to play. Under the Abruzzo worldview, that sounds like an unfair labor practice too.

Let’s play this out a little further. If the reason student-athletes are employees is because of the Right to Control Test analysis, then wouldn’t the same analysis apply to other laws that use the Right to Control Test? The Affordable Care Act and ERISA use Right to Control Tests. Could it become the law that student-athletes must be made an offer of coverage under ACA? Would the school have to allow the players to participate in employee retirement programs?

And what about the Economic Realities Test used for determining whether someone is an employee under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which requires minimum wage and overtime? The Economic Realities Test is generally viewed as more expansive and inclusive than the Right to Control Test. If Abruzzo’s position is embraced by the NLRB and later affirmed by the U.S. Courts of Appeal, would that open the door for requiring private universities to pay student-athletes a minimum wage and overtime?

This is sounding like Absurdistan (which, by the way, it the title of a pretty entertaining book by Gary Shtenygart).

I’m making unreasonable noises just thinking about all of this. Good think I’m not in a national park with a horse nearby or I’d really be in trouble.

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© 2021 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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You Knew College Athletes Weren’t Employees, But Did You Know Why?

college-athletesYou knew that college athletes were not employees of their schools, but did you know the legal reason why?

Let’s look at a recent case that arose under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

In early 2015, a group of student-athletes sued several schools and the NCAA, alleging that they had put in thousands of hours of work for the benefit of their school, without compensation. The student-athletes alleged that they should have been paid at least a minimum wage, as required under the FLSA.

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