Report: Private university DI FBS football players are employees, NLRB states

Daily Orange File Photo

Football players for private universities at the highest level — including Syracuse — are employees, the National Labor Relations Board reportedly stated this week. Inside Higher Education first reported the news.

The decision doesn’t force any of the 17 private universities in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision to pay its players, according to a memo obtained by Inside Higher Ed and sent by NLRB’s general counsel, Richard Griffin. But it does protect those players’ rights to campaign as employees under the National Labor Relations Act, including the ability to ask for pay without fear of retaliation.

“Representation for the players is a great thing,” said Sean Hickey, a former Orange offensive lineman now with the Minnesota Vikings. “I’ve been in those locker rooms. I’ve seen this industry, professional and college, and it’s very cut-throat. Syracuse protects the rights of the students and all, but it’s a business and coaches would always say, ‘This is your job. This is your job. This is your job.’ Well then it should be protected as such.”

SU Athletics was not immediately available for comment.

The memo chips away further at the enamel of the NCAA’s concept of amateurism. In October 2016, the NLRB ruled that private institutions have no right to limit its athletes’ use of social media and that they were employees. The NCAA issued a statement in response, according to the Los Angeles Times, rejecting that its athletes are employees.

“This will be fought tooth and nail by the NCAA and most institutions to protect themselves from having to pay money,” former SU punter Rob Long said in a text message to The Daily Orange.

In August 2015, the NLRB declined to exert jurisdiction in a case where Northwestern football players petitioned for the right to become a union, effectively denying the right to unionize and collectively bargain. Griffin’s memo does not affect that ruling, nor allow athletes to collectively bargain, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Hickey approached the issue evenly. He had written a paper on the topic for a class in the Martin J. Whitman School of Management and said he understood the difficult position the NCAA remains in when it comes to full out paying athletes. At the same time, only football, basketball and men’s lacrosse provide team revenue for Syracuse’s athletic department and all other sports are funding net-negatives. But Hickey still believes the money is out there.

“Even if you don’t fully pay the player,” Hickey said, “the player should still have representation about how their life is built.”

Syracuse went to two bowl games when Hickey played for the Orange and he said, in that case, football players were afforded about 20 days off all year between the season, pre-season and workouts.

“We’re going to be here that much all year and we’re not considered employees?” Hickey said. “I thought that was extreme. … I knew kids that couldn’t go home for emergencies because you’re in-season. It was tough to go home. We’re not employees? They treated us well at Syracuse, but it’s not a perfect system.”

The long-term impact of this decision is clouded. Griffin had been appointed by former president Barack Obama and his term ends in this November. President Donald Trump will appoint the NLRB’s next general counsel. The board will flip from majority Democrat to Republican, according to The New York Times, and “the remade body is expected to be less sympathetic to organized labor.”

“It always comes down to money at the end of the day,” Long said. “Schools and the NCAA aren’t going to part with their healthy bank accounts.”


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