The conference realignment has far-reaching implications for the rights of college athletes, including those affected by a May 18 unfair labor practice complaint filed by National Labor Relations Board Regional Director Maury Rubin, which Confirms That USC, Pac-12, and the NCAA are joint employers of the Trojans football team and men’s and women’s basketball players. The Pac-12’s role in this controversy is due to change — and the timing is very important.
USC is currently a member of the Pac-12. Barring unforeseen circumstances, the university will remain a member of the Pac-12 through the 2023-24 sports season, after which it is scheduled to join the Big Ten.
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Last week saw two more Pac-12 legends, Oregon and Washington, accept the Big Ten invitation to join in 2024 and, in doing so, push the Pac-12 — a league dating back to 1915 — to the brink of extinction. The schools’ moves were widely criticized by college sports fans and observers, at least outside of Eugene and Seattle, because they flouted the notion that great college sports are primarily about education.
Ramoji Homma, executive director of the National College Players Association, says recent earthquakes in college football have made the unfair labor practice (ULP) charge, originally brought by his group last year, even more convincing.
“It’s not something we’re excited about—we think it’s devastating to college athletics in a lot of ways,” Homma said. But their greed and crude business decisions highlight and underscore what we’re talking about. College sports, when it comes to football and basketball, is like any other business—they don’t have a high moral foundation.”
On Nov. 7, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) from the NLRB in Los Angeles will preside over a ULP hearing, where USC, the Pac-12 and the NCAA will try to argue that Trojans players are not employees. The hearing can last anywhere from a day to a week, after which the parties will be allowed to file post-hearing summaries before the ALJ issues a ruling, which can take several months.
This decision can be appealed to the NLRB in Washington, DC. The council’s decision will, in turn, be subject to challenge in a federal appeals court and possibly the US Supreme Court. To be clear, this debate could go on for several years.
While there’s a lot up in the air, this one seems certain: The dispute will not be resolved by the time USC joins the Big Ten and probably, given recent developments, not during the Pac-12 Conference.
When adding USC, the second private school member besides Northwestern, the Big Ten could also take on new responsibility.
Normally, if an NLRB has good reason to believe that a third party may be involved in an ongoing ULP fee, it will serve them with what is known as a Golden State heir to the letter that lies down “Short statement on potential third party exposure.”
The type of letter refers to the 1973 Supreme Court decision on Golden State Bottling Co. against the NLRBwhich addressed whether the acquiring entity was liable for ULP charges filed against its predecessor.
So far, the public agenda does not show that the Big Ten has given any such notice, but this too may just be a matter of time. (A league spokesperson declined to comment.)
Whether an athletic conference is a joint employer depends on the relationship between the conference, USC, and the athletes.
The more control the Pac-12 (or, eventually, the Big Ten) has over USC athletes (either directly or by requiring USC to enforce conference rules) the more that control forces the athletes to “work” like the staff they ought to be. I paid for their work, the strongest argument that the conference is a common employer.
NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo, who was last December is found Merit in charge the NCPA asserts that USC, the Pac-12, and the NCAA have collectively and individually denied USC athletes their rights, under the National Labor Relations Act, to seek recognition as employees and to join together to improve their conditions.
All three respondents rejected these assertions as “frivolous and without basis in law or fact”. they have advanced Several legal defenses, including that recognition of the work would generate conflicts for schools—and, to a certain extent, athletes—in compliance with the NLRA, Title IX, federal immigration laws, the Internal Revenue Code, state workers’ compensation laws and the Fair Labor Standards Act. They also argue that the NLRB violates the First Amendment if it forces colleges to articulate policies they are not willing to articulate.
If the ALJ, NLRB, or federal court ultimately determines that USC, the Pac-12, and the NCAA are joint employers of USC football and basketball players, other Trojan athletes, as well as those at various private colleges, can rely on the ruling to establish their recognition as employees. The success of this argument depends on several factors; More importantly, whether there was a similarity in experiences between them and USC football and basketball players.
Also, whether public college athletes deserve the same designation is a matter of individual state labor law, not national labor law. If their university is a member of a conference similar to the Pac-12, and if the Pac-12 and the NCAA are considered joint employers, those athletes can argue the conference and the NCAA are their joint employers as well.
This leads to the Pac-12 and timing. Barring the settlement, this legal controversy will last much longer than USC has been a member of the Pac-12. It may last longer than the Pac-12 has existed.
When USC joins the Big Ten, the petition in question in the NLRB matter will be amended to name the Big Ten as the purported co-employer conference; The Pac-12 cannot be a joint employer of a school that is no longer a member of the conference.
The relevant legal question will remain the same: whether a conference (the Pac-12 or the Big Ten), allegedly, like the NCAA, is a co-owner.
But the exchange in conference could be impactful if the Big Ten operates differently from the Pac-12 in ways that have an impact on the recruiting issue. Given that Power Five conferences are arguably turning into pro-like leagues, there are, like Athlete newly to explain, a more convincing legal argument that players should be recognized as employees. Football and basketball players are the workers for huge media and TV contracts, they travel to play games all over the country and the professional athletes and their coaches get very well paid. It’s safe to say the judges will I notice.
There are still other variables. If the Pac-12 collapses in the coming days or weeks, and current member schools need to quickly find another conference, any conference USC joins will inherit the NLRB matter until USC lands in the Big Ten. Alternatively, if the Pac-12 merged with the ACC or absorbed the Mountain West (or some variant), that combined entity would inherit the issue of the NLRB as the so-called co-employer conference.
Regardless of the arrangement, a relevant employment law question remains for the combined employer’s analysis: What is the relationship between a conference (Pac-12, Big Ten, new combined entity, etc.) and a USC athlete’s work?
Given the direction college sports are headed, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for the truth-expeller to say that the relationship is anything but a functional one.