Aztecs football team
San Diego State, along with other major college athletic programs, could face significant impacts from issues before the NLRB. Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire

The Los Angeles regional head of the agency that enforces U.S. labor laws has sided with scholarship players at the University of Southern California (USC) seeking recognition as employees who have the right to unionize.

The director of the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) Region 31 issued a finding of merit in an unfair labor practice charge brought by the basketball and football athletes against USC, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the Pac-12 athletic conference.

The parties to the case were informed of the decision on Thursday, according to NLRB spokesperson Kayla Blado.

It marks the first such ruling since the NLRB’s top lawyer issued a legal opinion in September 2021 asserting that college athletes should be classified as employees, and thus protected by U.S. labor law, when providing services that generate profits through athletic events their schools control.

The 2021 memo by Jennifer Abruzzo, the agency’s general counsel, put colleges and universities on notice that the NLRB’s 32 regions would support college players’ valid organizing efforts, effectively inviting athletes to unionize.

A separate case filed by college athletes in Indianapolis against the NCAA and others has been held in abeyance pending the outcome of the USC case, as athletes and major programs like those at San Diego State await potentially momentous results.

Region 31’s finding of merit was based on its determination that USC, the Pac-12 and the NCAA, as joint employers, “have maintained unlawful rules and unlawfully misclassified scholarship basketball and football players as mere ‘student athletes’ rather than employees entitled to protections under our law,” Abruzzo said on Thursday.

Under the finding of merit, the parties may either settle their dispute, or the regional director will prosecute the athletes’ case on their behalf before an administrative law judge, who could order remedies.

The judge’s ruling could then be appealed to the full NLRB, which would render a decision as to whether USC, NCAA and Pac-12 are employers under labor law, and could order its own remedies.

USC issued a statement suggesting it would contest the ruling, saying the “matter remains at an initial stage,” and that “no final ruling will be issued until there has been a full hearing based on all the relevant facts of law.”

“We look forward to presenting those facts, along with 75 years of favorable legal precedent,” the university said.

The NCAA did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Reuters, and the Pac-12 declined to comment.

The National College Players Association, which brought the charges on behalf of 113 USC athletes, also could not be reached.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; additional reporting by Rory Carroll in Los Angeles. editing by Gerry Doyle)