Do College Athletes Have the Right to Join a Union? The Answer is Still “Maybe”

Overview: Back in September 2021, the National Labor Relations Board general counsel issued GC Memorandum 21-08, formally taking the prosecutorial position that certain college and university athletes are employees entitled to all of the rights guaranteed by the National Labor Relations Act. This would include the right to engage in certain protected concerted activities, such as strikes, and to organize to join a union. For private colleges and universities, formal, legal recognition of student-athletes as “employees” would significantly change the relationship between schools and athletes.

Discussion: Back in September 2021, General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo of the National Labor Relations Board (the “Board”), who leads the enforcement arm of the Board, issued GC Memorandum 21-08, formally taking the prosecutorial position that certain college and university athletes are employees entitled to all of the rights guaranteed by the National Labor Relations Act (the “Act”). This would include the right to engage in certain protected concerted activities, such as strikes, and to organize to join a union.

This is not the first time a Board general counsel has taken this position; Richard Griffin, appointed by President Barack Obama, issued a similar memorandum in 2017 that was later rescinded by his Republican successor, Peter Robb, appointed by President Donald Trump. Abruzzo, however, has taken this legal analysis a step further, arguing that “misclassifying” collegiate athletes as mere “student-athletes,” and leading athletes to believe that they do not have statutory protections, violates the Act in and of itself.

For private colleges and universities (the Act does not apply to public institutions of higher education), formal, legal recognition of student-athletes as “employees” would significantly change the relationship between schools and athletes. To start, schools would have to guess whether an athlete qualifies as an employee in the first place. Guessing incorrectly could have expensive consequences, as merely mislabeling the student could risk violating the Act and require defending against the ensuing charge.

As employees, athletes would have the right to engage in collective action, which could clash with school codes of conduct or campus rules. And, should student-athletes choose to organize and vote to join a union, the school would be required to engage in good faith collective bargaining over wages, hours and other terms and conditions of the athletes’ “employment.” The implications of such an arrangement could be significant: Would this require negotiations over the costs of meal plans and housing? What about school-sponsored health insurance plans? Would student-athletes gain the right to have union representation in disciplinary proceedings? Classifying a school’s athletes as employees would undoubtedly unleash a Pandora’s box of issues and questions.

Since publishing the memorandum over a year ago, Abruzzo’s office has yet to prosecute a test case that would give the Board (currently a 3-2 Democrat majority) the opportunity to formally adopt the position that certain student-athletes are employees under the Act. However, private colleges and universities should not assume that this agenda item has been forgotten.

There are a couple of pending cases against the National Collegiate Athletic Association alleging that it has misclassified student-athletes. And, on December 15, 2022, Abruzzo announced that her office found merit in at least one pending unfair labor practice charge case, which could result in a formal charge (giving her a pathway to litigate the issue up to the Board). Meanwhile, there are other legal efforts to classify collegiate athletes as employees through legislative or judicial action.

In short, private colleges and universities should stay alert to this classification issue and keep an eye out for signs of union organizing among college athletes, particularly football players at Division I Football Bowl Subdivision private colleges and universities. Though it is impossible to predict how this battle over collegiate athletes will unfold, one thing is certain: It is not going away any time soon.

For More Information

If you have any questions about this Alert, please contact Elizabeth Mincer, Zev Grumet-Morris, Katherine Brodie, or any of the attorneys in our Education Industry Group or the attorney in the firm with whom you are regularly in contact.

Temporary Expanded SNAP Benefits for College Students

Expanding access to postsecondary education for low income students includes more than just assistance with tuition and fees. Many low income students also need help with daily food costs while they pursue higher education. That need can adversely impact academic progress if not addressed. Needs have been exacerbated by the pandemic and high unemployment, and impact students whether they study on ground or online. Food insecurity among college students is gaining more attention, with the opening of college food pantries and other community support initiatives. The federal government is also stepping up. The U.S. Department of Education, in coordination with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has issued new guidance to postsecondary institutions to raise awareness about temporarily expanded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) eligibility for students and urges institutions to make students aware of this resource. The expansion of benefits will be in effect until 30 days after the COVID-19 public health emergency is lifted. The new guidance can be found here:


Avoiding Land Mines: Do Your Homework on that New Campus or Instructional Location

Authors: Julie Mebane, Partner (Real Estate) and Katherine Brodie, Partner (Higher Education)

Nothing is more unwelcome than a big surprise after your institution has invested hours and dollars in a new instructional location. Up front due diligence is essential, and it needs to identify issues that may impair your ability to operate at a new location or expose the institution to significant liabilities. Be sure to consider the following and utilize counsel well versed in college and university property acquisitions and applicable regulations to examine any problems you may encounter:

  • What is the zoning of the property? Is there a zoning report that can be reviewed (if not, consider ordering one)? Does the property have the number of parking spaces required by law or local ordinances?
  • Are there any CC&Rs (covenants, conditions and restrictions) recorded against the property? Get and review copies to make sure they don’t prohibit any intended uses.
  • Is there a conditional use permit (CUP) or planned development permit affecting the property? If so, review this for any use restrictions.
  • What is the current condition of the property and the physical plant? Check for current building permits, and consider getting a professional inspection report on the building’s systems.
  • Does the current owner have a title policy covering the property? Important information about the location and its history can be gained from this document.
  • Does the owner have a Phase 1 environmental assessment regarding any hazardous materials at the location? Request and review this for possible issues, and keep it as a baseline in case of future problems.
  • Are there any litigation or condemnation actions that have been filed relating to the property? These can be red flags for any future owner or occupant.
  • Is the property in a designated flood zone, near an earthquake fault line, or otherwise located in an area exposed to natural disasters? Natural hazard disclosure reports can be obtained without much expense.
  • Was the property previously used by an institution participating in U.S. Department of Education Title IV federal student aid programs and did that institution close with unpaid liabilities owed to the Department? If so, moving into that space by lease or purchase could expose your institution to assumption of the unpaid liabilities of the previous owner.
  • Do you know your state, accreditor and Department of Education reporting obligations? These agencies must generally be notified of any change of location or any new space where more than 50% of an eduational program will be offered, or the institution risks liability for all Title IV funds disbursed to students at the new location and potentially other regulatory sanctions.

Most of these questions can be answered with the help of a forthcoming landlord when negotiating a new lease and with the assistance of experienced counsel. If the property is being purchased, the seller is likely required by law to make certain representations and warranties and to disclose property-related information and materials during the buyer’s due diligence period.

So don’t be surprised – get the information you need before you commit to a new campus or instructional location.


U.S. Department of Education Confirms New Reporting Requirements Apply to Public Colleges and Universities

On June 3, 2019, the U.S. Department of Education issued a Q&A document regarding compliance with the BDR Rule that confirmed that the reporting requirements for certain “triggering” events will be enforced at all institutions, including public colleges and universities. This information supplements the Department’s March 15, 2019, guidance regarding the 2016 BDR Rule.

The Department’s Q&A makes clear that public institutions are required to report, pursuant to 34 C.F.R. 668.171(h), the following events within the stated time periods:

  • Borrower-defense-related lawsuits brought by a federal or state authority: within 10 days after the institution is served with the complaint and then again within 10 days after the suit has been pending for 120 days.
  • All other lawsuits: within 10 days after the institution is served with a complaint, then again within 10 days after the court sets certain deadlines relating to motions for summary judgment (MSJ) or disposition, and then a third time within 10 days after certain events relating to an MSJ or dispositive motion occur.
  • Any debt or liability arising from a final judgment in a judicial or administrative proceeding: within 10 days after a payment was required or the liability was incurred.
  • Any settlement, including settlements reached prior to the initiation of a formal legal proceeding: within 10 days after a payment was required or a liability was incurred.


To read the full text of this Alert, please visit the Duane Morris website.

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The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and are not to be construed as legal advice.

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