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Oklahoma Coach Lincoln Riley: NLRB May Send College Athletics to a 'Breaking Point'

College athletes being classified as employees goes further down the road of being professionals, and trying to be both "ain't gonna work," the Sooners coach says.

Oklahoma football coach Lincoln Riley appreciates the progress that college athletics have made over the past two years, but now he fears things may be headed toward a “breaking point.”

Wednesday’s memo from the National Labor Relations Board that student-athletes should be regarded as employees, rather than student-athletes, may be real cause for concern.

“At some point, this is going to go full-scale professional — which I hope it doesn’t,” Riley said Thursday afternoon on a video conference with local reporters. “Or, at some point, we’re going to have to pull back. I don’t know what that breaking point’s going to be.”

The NCAA in 2018 created the transfer portal to empower athletes to follow their heart and seek other playing and educational opportunities. This year’s enactment of a one-time transfer waiver lets them do so without having to sit out a year, or redshirt.

This past summer’s biggest off-field legislation — name, image and likeness (NIL) — allows student-athletes to be compensated for their athletic prowess through endorsements, autographs or branded merchandise. While it’s been a boon to many athletes financially, it also has fundamentally changed the way many fans now regard their favorite players. Furthermore, NIL was put forth without any real guidance from the NCAA itself. Instead, the association chose to let individual schools and state laws form the backbone of any NIL regulations.

But the NLRB now wanting to legally classify those athletes as employees takes college athletics to another place entirely.

“NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo issued a memorandum to all field offices providing updated guidance regarding her position 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 NLRB wrote in a report on its website.

“The memo further advises that, where appropriate, she will allege that misclassifying such employees as mere ‘student-athletes’ and leading them to believe that they are not entitled to the Act’s protection has a chilling effect on Section 7 activity and is an independent violation of Section 8(a)(1) of the Act.”

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The NLRB is following on the heels of this summer’s unanimous Supreme Court ruling that schools can’t be allowed to restrict the education-related expenses of their athletes.

“Players at Academic Institutions perform services for institutions in return for compensation and subject to their control,” Abruzzo wrote. “Thus, the broad language of Section 2(3) of the Act, the policies underlying the NLRA, Board law, and the common law fully support the conclusion that certain Players at Academic Institutions are statutory employees, who have the right to act collectively to improve their terms and conditions of employment. My intent in issuing this memo is to help educate the public, especially Players at Academic Institutions, colleges and universities, athletic conferences, and the NCAA, about the legal position that I will be taking regarding employee status and misclassification in appropriate cases.”

Riley, who has been an outspoken proponent of many of the sweeping changes in college athletics, worries that the NLRB ruling — even as it currently relates only to private universities, and even as it is still merely a non-binding suggestion from the NLRB legal team — might eventually become a bridge too far.

“I do worry that, with our game, we're in a little bit of in-between right now,” Riley said. “Like, are we going professional? Are we not going professional? Are we amateurs? Are we not? … It's like, we're kind of trying to be halfway, or both. And I just — that ain’t gonna work.

“Things have changed,” he said. “… There’s definitely been some benefits (and) been some positives of it, I don’t think there’s any doubt. But I don’t know. I just don’t know how long we can sit there and straddle the fence here. I’m not sitting here saying I’ve got the answer right now. I don’t. But it’s going to keep changing, because it’s not going to stay like this. I just don’t see any way, in my opinion.”

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