U.S. labor board official says college athletes are 'employees'

Sept 29 (Reuters) - The top lawyer at the agency that enforces U.S. labor laws said on Wednesday that many college athletes are their schools' employees, effectively inviting players to take steps to unionize.

National Labor Relations Board General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo in a memo said her office would bring complaints against colleges that interfere with players' organizing efforts or assert that athletes are not employees protected by federal labor law.

Abruzzo, an appointee of U.S. President Joe Biden, said players are schools' employees because they provide services that generate profits and schools control the players' athletic activities.

The NLRB's general counsel acts like a prosecutor in unfair labor practice cases that are heard by the five-member board. Any ruling by the board that college athletes are employees who can join unions could be challenged in court.

The memo comes amid a broader shift in the legal landscape for college sports, which generate billions of dollars in revenue for schools.

The U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down the National Collegiate Athletic Association's (NCAA) limits on non-cash compensation for athletes, such as scholarships for graduate school and paid internships.

Abruzzo in the memo said the court's decision underscored that college sports are a profit-making enterprise, and said that a shift toward paying players only further supported the view that schools are their employers.

Abruzzo reinstated a 2017 memo by an Obama-era predecessor that also said college athletes were schools' employees. The memo had been withdrawn later that year by an appointee of former President Donald Trump.

The NLRB in 2015 dismissed a bid by football players at Northwestern University near Chicago to join a union. The board said it lacked jurisdiction over the case but did not rule on the key question of whether the players were Northwestern's employees.

Reporting by Daniel Wiessner in New York, Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Steve Orlofsky

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.