A college athletes advocacy group filed a labor complaint Tuesday afternoon asserting that the federal government should view all FBS-level football players and Division I men's and women's basketball players as employees of their schools.
The National College Players Association submitted its claims to the Los Angeles-based regional office of the National Labor Relations Board. It names USC, UCLA, the Pac-12 Conference and the NCAA as employers who are unfairly restricting the rights of their employees -- college athletes. If the complaint is successful at the end of a process that often takes many months if not years to complete, every college athlete in the NCAA's three most profitable sports would be considered an employee of their schools. The NCAA would no longer be able to place limits on how or how much schools pay their athletes.
"College athletes meet the definition of employees under labor law," said Ramogi Huma, the executive director of the NCPA. "...These athletes deserve every right afforded to them under labor laws -- just like other hard-working Americans."
The NCAA is firmly opposed to making college athletes into employees, viewing them instead strictly as students who compete in sports as part of their educational experience. The organization's members approved a new constitution last month that reiterated the stance that athletes at NCAA schools "may not be compensated by a member institution for participating in a sport."
An NCAA spokesperson declined to comment on Tuesday's claims. A spokesperson from USC provided a statement from the university that said the school was aware of the charge and is reviewing it.
"College athletics at USC is part of the comprehensive set of opportunities we offer students as part of their educational experience, and we deeply value our talented students who participate in USC's athletic programs. We always consider what is best for our students as individuals and support their success in many ways, including through scholarships and by providing academic and other support," the statement said.
UCLA and the Pac-12 also declined to comment.
The complaint is the latest in a flurry of recent legal attempts to reshape how athletes can profit from the billions of dollars generated by college sports on an annual basis. In the last year, the Supreme Court and an increasing number of lawmakers have suggested it might be time to redefine the relationship that colleges have with their athletes. Huma and his group argue that college athletes meet the federal definition of an employee because they receive compensation due to their athletic skills and they "perform their work under extensive control" of their schools.
Jennifer Abruzzo, the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, published a memo in September that said she agreed that some college athletes ought to be considered employees. Her comments were viewed by some sports law experts as an invitation for anyone to challenge the NCAA in the wake of the Supreme Court's unanimous decision this past June to uphold a ruling against the association. Abruzzo's position doesn't guarantee success for this kind of complaint. Her office would potentially serve in a role akin to a prosecutor arguing on behalf of athletes in front of a five-member panel if the case moves forward.
The NCPA's charges are the second complaint filed against the NCAA since Abruzzo published her memo. The College Basketball Players Association, an advocacy group started by former University of Minnesota regent Michael Hsu, filed a similar complaint in November to the NLRB regional office in Indianapolis. The Indianapolis office has not yet decided if it will take on the case.
The NCPA played an active role in encouraging state legislatures to change their laws to open the door for college athletes to make money from third-party endorsers. Huma, a former UCLA football player, was also involved in helping Northwestern football players, led by quarterback Kain Colter, to petition to form a union at their school in 2015. That attempt to redefine college players as employees fell short of its goal when the NLRB's five-member panel opted to dismiss their petition.
Public sentiment and the compensation that athletes can now receive from their schools have both changed significantly since Northwestern's unionization attempt. Huma says this new complaint is also different because Abruzzo is willing to view the NCAA and conferences (not just individual schools) as potential employers. Since the NLRB doesn't have jurisdiction over government-run entities such as public universities, the ability to consider athletes as employees of the NCAA allows for the first time the possibility that players at all public and private schools could be considered employees.
ESPN Staff Writer Kyle Bonagura contributed to this report.