National Labor Relations Board files complaint against USC, Pac-12 and NCAA

NLRB pursues National College Players Association's unfair labor practice charge aimed at affirming USC FB & BB players as employees of USC, the Pac-12, and the NCAA.

J. Brady McCollough
May 18, 2023

The Los Angeles office of the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint Thursday against USC, the Pac-12 Conference and the NCAA, alleging that the three joint employers have maintained unlawful rules by “misclassifying” college athletes in men’s and women’s basketball and football as “student-athletes” rather than employees who are entitled to protections under the National Labor Relations Act.

“The conduct of USC, the Pac-12 Conference and the NCAA, as joint employers, deprives their players of their statutory right to organize and to join together to improve their working and playing conditions if they wish to do so,” NLRB general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo said in a statement. “Our aim is to ensure that these players, as workers like any other, can fully and freely exercise their rights.”

Abruzzo first made public her position that certain college athletes should be classified as employees in Sept. 2021. In Feb. 2022, the National College Players Association’s executive director Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA football player, filed a charge against USC, the Pac-12 and the NCAA, alleging unfair labor practices.


WASHINGTON D.C., SEPTEMBER 23, 2019—Profile of Ramogi Huma, is a former UCLA football player who has been the leader voice for pro-athlete reform in NCAA sports over the last decade and a half. He works out of his home in the Ontario area. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)


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Huma filed the same charge against UCLA, the Pac-12 and the NCAA as joint employers, but the NCPA dropped the charge, focusing on USC. Any ruling by the NLRB, for now, would only apply to private schools, which fall under the board’s jurisdiction.

If the NLRB ultimately decides that certain college athletes at USC are employees, however, the impact would be felt at every school across the Football Bowl Subdivision, public or private, confirming a sea change toward athletes enjoying rights that go beyond the use of their name, image and likeness and being able to share in the ever-growing revenues of their industry directly.

“The general counsel seeks an order requiring respondents to cease and desist from misclassifying the players as non-employee ‘student-athletes,’ ” the complaint says, “and reclassify the players as employees rather than ‘student-athletes’ in their files, including, but not limited to, their handbooks and rules, and notify all current players that they have done so.”

USC football players run on to the field before the 2020 Pac-12 title game against Oregon at the Coliseum.
USC football players run on to the field before the 2020 Pac-12 title game against Oregon at the Coliseum. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Thursday’s complaint makes it official that the L.A. Region of the NLRB will litigate the case, and a hearing with an administrative law judge is set for Nov. 7 in Los Angeles. The judge could order remedies in favor of the athletes. Such a ruling likely would be appealed by the joint employers to the NLRB, which would then decide whether or not the charged parties are employers.

USC, the Pac-12 and the NCAA would have the option to appeal the NLRB’s ruling to a federal appellate court, starting a legal process that could end up in the Supreme Court.

“FBS football players and NCAA Division I men’s and women’s basketball players, the majority of whom are Black, are exploited physically and economically by NCAA sports,” Huma said in a statement. “One of the reasons this injustice continues to plague all athletes in these sports nationwide is because NCAA sports has denied them rights under labor law. This process will prove that these athletes are employees under labor law and are entitled to all rights and protections afforded to other employees in America. The NCPA will continue to fight to ensure college athletes have equal rights.”

USC, the Pac-12 and the NCAA have until June 1 to file an answer to the complaint.

USC players celebrate on the sideline while playing California

“While disappointing, this complaint is neither new nor surprising; it simply perpetuates a position that the National Labor Relations Board erroneously staked out many months ago, and which would significantly undermine the educational experiences of our student-athletes,” USC responded in a statement. “Now that the complaint has finally been filed, the next step in the process is an actual hearing, where USC is looking forward to presenting the complete facts about its athletic programs. These facts, along with 75 years of precedent, establish that our student-athletes — including those on our football and basketball teams — are not employees.

“USC is exceedingly proud of the unsurpassed educational achievements of its student-athletes. In 2022, USC student-athletes reached a 93% graduation success rate, an all-time high for the ninth consecutive year. More than half of USC’s athletic teams achieved a graduation success rate of 100%, including men’s and women’s basketball.

“USC also is proud of the resources and support it provides to its student-athletes to help them build life-long skills through their athletic pursuits. This support includes millions of dollars annually in athletics-related financial aid across all 21 of its intercollegiate teams, millions of dollars annually in the form of professional development to support their future in the workplace, tutoring, nutrition, mentorship, academic support, and leadership opportunities. We also operate the largest embedded sports psychology and mental health program of any athletics department in the nation, which is offered to all our student-athletes, together with comprehensive medical services. This support enhances their educational experience and allows them to build skills that promote success in life and the workplace.”