National Labor Relations Board rules private colleges’ restrictions on players ‘unlawful’

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The NLRB reaffirmed that athletes at private colleges are considered employees of colleges and that they must be allowed to express themselves freely.

The National Labor Relations Board has announced that all 17 private schools in the FBS, including Syracuse, have to abolish their “unlawful” rules restricting their players freedom of expression, in a ruling that referred to the players as employees, ESPN reported.

The ruling dealt specifically with Northwestern and its athletic handbook, which limited what athletes could post on social media, whom they could talk to and what they could talk about. Now, players “must be freely allowed to post on social media, discuss issues of their health and safety, and speak with the media,” according to ESPN. They cannot be banned from talking about strategy or their teammates, except in cases where a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, federal privacy law violation could occur.

The NLRB can’t impose rules on public schools because it is in charge of relations between private companies and their employees. And the ruling did not address compensation for athletes. However, it opens the door for players to pursue compensation via the legal system.

According to ESPN, “In addition to granting players greater freedoms, the NLRB ruling will offer athletes a clear path to bring their issues before an independent agency outside of the organizations that have historically governed college athletics — the universities, the conferences and the NCAA.

“So while this ruling did not address compensation for athletes, someone could now file a charge with the NLRB asserting that failing to pay players constitutes an unfair labor practice. After all, if the NLRB — which is led by a five-person board and a general counsel, all appointed by the president — declared that close monitoring of social media is an unfair labor practice, it is an open question how it would view failure to pay players. Until now, the issue has been contested only in antitrust courts.”

Northwestern’s handbook directed players to “never discuss any aspects of the team with anyone” and “never agree to an interview unless the interview has been arranged by the athletic communications office,” but the NLRB ruled against that.

The new regulations will likely be hard to enforce beyond taking the specific language out of official school handbooks for athletes.


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