College & Pro Athletes Aren’t Playing Games!

“Student-athletes” has always been a misclassification. An NLRB memo encourages college players to organize as employees. The National Women’s Soccer League is rocked by revelations of abuse.


This is Filiberto. Your usual correspondent Amie is off  chasing or being chased by bears. It really depends on what species she may have stumbled into. Her spirit remains since she wrote some of these words. She will be back soon. 

In immortal words of Ice Cube, “Yo Dre, I got somethin' to say” 

For those of you that see Fall as a chance to strut in your favorite U of M swag and head over to the stadium the product on the field may change dramatically.

A press release and memorandum from the NLRB, written by General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo, states that “certain Players at Academic Institutions (sometimes referred to as student athletes), are employees under the National Labor Relations Act, and, as such, are afforded all statutory protections.”

The memo cites an episode, of the documentary series on HBO called Level Playing Field: Misclassified:

NCAA intentionally misclassifies college scholarship athletes as “student-athletes” to avoid providing protections and benefits under employment laws, including wage and hour, workers compensation, health and safety, and unemployment benefits, as well as under labor laws, just as gig employers misclassify employees as “independent contractors,” and describing how doing so institutionalizes racial segregation of workplace protections). 

The term “student-athlete” was coined by the NCAA to deprive players of workplace protections, similar to how companies in the gig economy, like Uber and Shipt, call their drivers independent contractors. These employees make the companies money, but receive no benefits of being a regular employee.

“Gig economy and ‘student-athlete’ were both created to slight the worker.” --Kyle Allen, former NCAA athlete, Level Playing Field: Misclassified on HBO

Note: another major category of worker not legally considered a worker are prison laborers.

Jason Stahl is a former professor at the University of Minnesota who raised concerns about the abusive culture surrounding football athletics and coach PJ Fleck’s team. After receiving pressure and being demoted, Stahl resigned from the U. He’s now the executive director of the College Football Player’s Association (CFPA), a group advocating for the organizing and empowerment of college athletes.

Stahl, having taught many football players over his career at the U, is familiar with the struggles of his students. In “Exploit U,” he writes about the demanding and toxic schedules of players: 

In Fleck’s first season at Minnesota in 2017, other players on the team described to me a hellacious schedule that began at 5:00 a.m. with most of the players not falling asleep until after midnight. Then they woke up the next day and did it all over again. Players told me that many of them simply slept and showered at the practice facility itself (where cots were laid out) as opposed to going home at all. No time was allowed for leisure.

Their schedules were packed; they always seemed stressed out; and many, especially black men, were putting their safety on the line to make gobs of money for the institution.

Listen: Grant Norton was a football player at the U who had a harrowing experience addressing his mental health. 

Former UMN Regent Michael Hsu and CFPA board member is quoted in this USA Today column by Dan Wolken on the memo: “It’ll be a big fight, who’s going to be the union to represent the first school because it’s a potential expansion of market for them.”

I have been following college athletics and their various attempts at collective bargaining over the years. I felt that if these young and influential athletes can help motivate worker consciousness for their generation of peers. College athletics and college football in particular is a turnstile of mostly men of color, particular Black men thankful to not pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition. In exchange they pulverize their bodies for the benefit of the mostly white men that run college football.  

What do y’all think might change?

It's not just college athletes speaking truth to power. 

This year, professional athletes have made headlines for calling out abuse in athletics and prioritizing their mental health. Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, and more have made public statements. 

The message was deeply amplified by players from the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) 

Over the last several weeks bombshell revelations revealed a culture of abuse in professional women's soccer. The revelations have led to the firing and sanctions for one coach and the resignation of the league commissioner. Ongoing firings and resignations are expected. 

Leading on the reporting has been The Athletic. (They are behind a paywall. Sorry!) Their reporting is worth a read and for those like me that are survivors, it was difficult and worthwhile to process. I found myself identifying really strongly with the experience. The reporting describes in difficult detail how once coach slowly groomed targeted players. The writing is light and descriptive, despite the difficult content. 

The Athletic connects these abusive patterns to lack of rights as athletic workers. 

The mentality of abusers and the cultural factors around sports are particularly compounded in NWSL due to the league’s relative lack of player rights. The fact that all of these disclosures are happening once the players formalized their union and hired a full time executive director in lawyer Meghann Burke is instructive. 

Jonas Baer-Hoffman, general secretary of FIFPro and former New Zealand international Sarah Gregorius, FIFPro’s director of global policy and strategic relations for women’s football, pointed at the labor-employer relationship as a huge factor in the conditions specific to NWSL that created environments where abuse could happen. In NWSL, teams can waive players on 24 hours notice with no continuing obligations, can put players on discovery lists with no notice to the player, control player rights beyond the end of the contracts via the “end of season process” in their roster rules, and can hold a players’ rights in perpetuity. This results in sometimes absurd situations, like a player leaving to play in a different country, only to return to the United States and have their rights still be held by a team they never agreed to play for.

Speaking of Billionaires and the powerful.  The Pandora Papers reporting reveals the extent to which we are DEFINITELY NOT operating on a level playing field. The super wealthy have created structures to conceal their wealth and thus their power from the public and potentially investigations.  For us in the Midwest the presence of South Dakota as a safe haven for potentially laundered and ill gotten money is especially interesting. 

Thoughts, Feelings, Suspicions?

Big COVID safe FIST BUMP to Amie for really shaping and moving this newsletter. It’s been fun to read.

After Amie’s first newsletter I noted with glee that she slipped in a catch phrase. I was amused that she didn't even notice! 

I don't have a catch phrase but here is my favorite quote. 


La justicia es igual a las serpientes. Sólo muerden a los que están descalzos

-Monsignor Oscar Romero