Iowa lawmakers have expanded on federal efforts to make student-athletes employees. They have introduced legislation (H.F. 2055) to classify intercollegiate athletes at Iowa’s state universities as state employees. This follows a year in which numerous state legislative efforts established name, image, and likeness rights for student-athletes and federal court decisions further impacted student-athletes’ rights.

The bill also would allow the Iowa state board of regents to fix athlete compensation in the same way it sets compensation for school presidents and other state employees.

The bill was introduced by Representative Bruce Hunter (D-Des Moines), the ranking member of the Iowa House Labor Committee.

If approved, the bill would apply to athletes at Iowa’s three public universities (University of Iowa, University of Northern Iowa, and Iowa State University), which all compete at the NCAA Division I level. None of the athletes at Iowa’s private institutions (12 of which compete across the NCAA’s three divisions) would be impacted and these student-athletes would not be considered employees of their schools under the terms of the bill.

The proposed Iowa legislation is consistent with the goals announced at the federal level by National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo in her September 28, 2021, memorandum.

She stated that, based on her interpretation of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), certain student-athletes are employees of their academic institutions.

She asserted that these student-athletes have been misclassified and that they should receive all the benefits and protections of employee status pursuant to the terms of the NLRA.

Although no student-athlete has been willing to initiate the process of asserting a violation of the NLRA that Abruzzo outlined in her memorandum, an unfair labor practice charge was filed against the NCAA by Michael Hsu, co-founder of the college basketball player advocacy group, the College Basketball Players Association. Hsu filed the unfair labor practice charge (Case No. 25-CA-286101) with Region 25 of the NLRB, in Indianapolis, accusing the NCAA of violating Sec. 8(a)(1) of the NLRA “by classifying college athletes as student-athletes.”

Hsu could file a charge even though he is neither a student-athlete nor the recognized representative of any student-athlete because the NLRA does not require standing to file a charge and the NLRB’s regulations provide that “any person may file a charge alleging that someone has engaged in . . . an unfair labor practice” (emphasis added). Hsu’s charge is being investigated and, if the charge is transitioned into a formal complaint, an administrative hearing will likely be held later this year.
In addition, Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) have introduced the College Athlete Right to Organize Act to amend the NLRA. It would amend the definition of employee under Section 2 of the NLRA to include student-athletes and provide student-athletes collective bargaining rights, regardless of any existing state law restrictions. The legislation provides jurisdiction to the NLRB to exercise authority over all institutions of higher education within intercollegiate sports for collective bargaining and labor disputes.

Further, the Johnson v. NCAA litigation is pending in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. In Johnson, collegiate athletes argue they were employees of their institutions and are entitled to proper wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The plaintiffs succeeded in overcoming their institution and NCAA’s attempts to dismiss their claims.

Finally, compensating college athletes has continued to gain momentum since the June 2021 U.S. Supreme Court decision in NCAA v. Alston and, in particular, Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s concurring opinion questioning the NCAA and member schools’ circular justification for not paying college athletes because colleges do not pay student-athletes. Shortly after Alston, the NCAA introduced a new policy allowing college athletes to be compensated for their name, image, and likeness.
Jackson Lewis’ Collegiate and Professional Sports Group will continue to monitor developments in the classification of college athletes as employees and the potential impact on college sports. Please feel free to reach out to any member of the Group with questions.

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Photo of Gregg E. Clifton Gregg E. Clifton

Gregg E. Clifton is a Principal in the Phoenix, Arizona, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He is Co-Leader of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Practice Group and serves as the editor of the firm’s sports law blog.

Mr. Clifton has extensive experience in…

Gregg E. Clifton is a Principal in the Phoenix, Arizona, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He is Co-Leader of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Practice Group and serves as the editor of the firm’s sports law blog.

Mr. Clifton has extensive experience in the collegiate and professional sports world. He has advised numerous professional franchises on general labor and employment issues, including Title III ADA regulatory compliance and wage and hour issues. He serves as lead counsel for several Major League Baseball teams in their salary arbitration matters and has represented NCAA and NAIA collegiate clients regarding rules compliance, investigatory matters and in disciplinary hearings. In addition, he has handled Title IX investigations and compliance issues for NCAA and NAIA member institutions. Mr. Clifton has also worked extensively in the area of agent regulation and enforcement in professional and college sports and regularly provides counsel on issues relating to NCAA and NAIA amateurism issues and athlete eligibility questions. He has also served as an expert witness in matters involving sports agents’ work and responsibilities, as well as athlete compensation issues.

Prior to joining Jackson Lewis, he spent six years as Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Team Sports for Gaylord Sports Management. He also served as President of the Athlete and Entertainment Division for famed sports attorney Bob Woolf’s firm, Woolf Associates, in Boston.

Mr. Clifton began his career as an Associate at Jackson Lewis where he focused his practice on traditional labor law. He continues to counsel clients in the areas of collective bargaining negotiations, representation cases, arbitrations and National Labor Relations Board matters.

Mr. Clifton frequently serves as an expert speaker to law schools, including Harvard University, Boston College, Hofstra University and Arizona State University, and bar associations regarding sports law issues, including agent regulation and salary arbitration. He is also often cited as an expert source in national news media for his commentary and opinion on legal issues in sports.