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Could Student-Athletes Be Considered Employees?

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Elizabeth Kirby Chief Reporter (2017-2018)

From football bowl games to March Madness, college sports are an enormous source of entertainment in American culture. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which oversees student-athletes, reported revenue of $871.6 million for the 2011-2012 period. Considering how many college games are televised and live-streamed, this colossal amount of income may not come as a shock to some, raising the question—why don’t the players share in any of this revenue?

The NCAA bylaws regulate the conduct of college athletes with the goals of promoting and developing leadership, athletic participation, and sportsmanship. A fundamental principle in these regulations is the idea of amateurism—or that college players are “students first, athletes second.” To be eligible for NCAA sports, students must agree to maintain their amateur status. This prohibits them from receiving salaries, prize monies, and contracts stemming from their athleticism or status as a student-athlete. Students are required to abide by the rules and regulations established by the NCAA, which can also control other parts of their lives that are seemingly unrelated to their athletic performance. These rules allow for players to receive scholarships, which can only cover tuition, room and board, university fees, and required books. In fact, it wasn’t until 2014 that the NCAA announced that it was okay to give student-athletes scholarships to cover the full cost of attendance. Whether due to the enormous amount of revenue that college sports draws in each year, or to the increase in news stories regarding fairness and justice for players, the rules about amateurism have recently been challenged by current and former student-athletes. Class action lawsuits have been filed by current football and basketball players from several Division I schools, essentially asking that these students receive additional compensation for their hard work. A lot of these cases have not yet been decided, but students are speaking up about the benefits they want—monetary and nonmonetary alike.

In August 2015, football players from Northwestern University petitioned the National Labor Board of Relations and asked the Board to find that they met the requirements to be considered employees of their Division I university. If the Board agreed, student-athletes would be able to claim protections given to other employees, such as establishing a union. The College Athletes Players Association, an advocacy group started by former NCAA student-athletes, details important benefits that a national union could seek, including:

  • offering health coverage for sports-related injuries;

  • minimizing the risk of concussions and brain injuries through established protocols;

  • increasing athletic scholarships; and

  • improving college graduation rates by helping athletes complete their degrees.

The National Labor Board of Relations denied the Northwestern players’ petition because the Board ruled it had no jurisdiction over this matter. Things may be turning around, though.

On January 31, 2017, the Office of the General Counsel of the Board issued a memorandum stating that in some cases, student-athletes could be considered employees. In reaching this decision, Robert F. Griffin, Jr., looked at the language of the National Labor Relations Act and the terms of these players’ contracts and activities. Specifically, he reviewed the NCAA rules that control most of the players’ activities, including requiring a minimum grade point average and a specific number of practice hours, placing restrictions on scholarships, limiting benefits they may receive, requiring mandatory drug testing, and allowing players to be penalized, or even dismissed, by their coaches.

With the popularity of college sports and the rising interest in student-athletes, it’s likely that changes are on the horizon for these players. If this momentum continues, maybe the next time you buy a jersey to support your favorite college player, that athlete will receive a portion of that sale.



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