UCLA Named as Co-Defendant in Complaint Aiming to Label Athletes as Employees
UCLA's Ramogi Huma is leading the charge.
Let’s start with the details.
On Tuesday, the National College Players Association filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board arguing that the NCAA should classify the athletes as employees. Named as a co-defendant in the complaint are a number of other organizations, including the Pac-12, Southern Cal, and most important for us, UCLA.
On its face, this move was always on the horizon ever since the NLRB issued a memo in September of 2021 which stated that it believed that certain athletes at private universities qualified for classification as employees (and by certain athletes, the memo very clearly refers to football and basketball players). The memo was not a binding document but merely an outline of the legal strategy the NLRB would support should a case arise to challenge the status quo. That said, the memo was a progression from a series of court cases, such as O’Bannon v. NCAA and NCAA v. Alston, that established that college athletics were generating massive profits while not allowing athletes to share in that revenue.
It is also not surprising that UCLA is being named in this complaint. The NCPA is a California-based organization led by former UCLA football player Ramogi Huma. Huma didn’t choose UCLA because of his familiarity with the school; in a statement to CBS Sports, Huma stated that he chose UCLA and Southern Cal for the complaint because they are in the same city and NLRB region, and thus would be subject to the same rules. UCLA, in particular, was chosen because it is a public school; the NLRB memo focused on private schools because those are subject to NLRB rules while public schools are not, but Huma and the NCPA believe that since the NCAA and the various conferences are joint employers then public schools are subject to the jurisdiction of the NLRB.
The expectation is that the NLRB will issue a ruling later this year. The question will be whether this ruling will be necessary; Iowa is currently considering legislation to classify athletes as employees, and should the bill pass and become law then it could follow the same trend as NIL laws did, with other states quickly following suit in order to not be left behind.
And now for the commentary bit.
One of my absolute favorite pieces of writing on college sports is a piece by our former SB Nation colleague Spencer Hall entitled Broke. The piece is a bit out of date, being written in 2015, but the crux of the article still remains strong, and I urge you to take the time to read it. I’ll even wait for you.
Back? Ok good.
Spencer laid out in that 2015 piece an excellent rebuttal to every straw-man thrown out by people who believe this will be the end of college athletics.
“If athletes are employees then they can now be cut for performance” - Well yeah, that already happens, and is even more prevalent now with the opening of the Transfer Portal.
“They would have to pay for medical issues” - Again, that is something that happens already, in that the schools may pay for the initial rehab but players are left to foot the bill for any lingering issues from their playing time, to say nothing of how an injury can lead to schools again choosing to cut a player.
“Players will be stuck paying taxes and could go into poverty because of poor financial planning” - A study by the NCPA showed that in the 2010-2011 school year a full 85% of athletes on school campuses live below the poverty line (and I know for a fact that this still applies to this day, even at a school like UCLA). That same study found that on average athletes ended up paying around $3200 in out-of-pocket expenses to cover school costs and that the fair market value for an average revenue-sports athlete was between $120,000 and $265,000. Poverty is already rampant among college athletes, and becoming employees and being paid at a fair market rate would do more to solve this issue than anything. As for the tax issue, NIL has shown that schools are more than willing to help players with financials and that if anything it is a boon to recruiting to show you are looking out for an athlete’s best interests.
“A college degree will be devalued” - That ship sailed a long time ago. Schools have decades of examples of classes and majors that appear designed as fillers for athletes. UCLA fans for years have made jokes about Underwater Basket Weaving at Southern Cal, but even the ivory towers of Westwood are clean here; the school established a new grad program in its Education department focused on Coaching and Leadership that was seemingly designed with the idea of getting more grad transfers admitted to the school.
Even the argument that colleges cannot afford to pay the players does not hold up to scrutiny because they can. No really, they can. I know this may be hard to wrap your head around considering UCLA has now posted a three-year budget shortfall of $100 million, but the schools are more than capable of generating money and paying players their market values at this very moment. The problem is in the way athletic departments have approached budgets to this point. Athletic departments are not businesses, and thus have no incentive to save profits in order to pay dividends to investors; they are a zero-sum game, and schools are incentivized to spend any and all extra revenue in order to maximize their ability to win. This is what has led coaching salaries (and buyouts) to explode, and the arms race of facility spending. All it would take to have the money to pay the players would be a reallocation of resources. Of course, since the people with money would suddenly have less money if these changes went into effect, you can see why there is a fight against it.
UCLA may be in the news now because they are named in the complaint, but this is a legal complaint that can hopefully change things for the better for student-athletes all over the country. I will leave the last words to Spencer:
To extend that point to its logical conclusion: either what is going on is a vast confusion of what constitutes capital or it is theft from every single football player that plays this stupid game to enrich a coach, athletic director, and the university. This is a system that willfully commits one of the greatest insults possible: making someone poorer, then claiming that poverty as a necessary, virtuous, and good thing.
That's a lie, and anyone who's even been broke for a short time knows it. Pay them. Pay them what you owe them. Pay them because the worst American tradition is taking things that aren't yours and calling it destiny or virtue or principle. Pay them because there is no nobility in keeping someone a dollar poorer than they have to be in exchange for honest work. Pay them because any system that deliberately makes people poorer is one of designed cruelty, even at this relatively small scale. Pay them their goddamn money.