The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals heard, and ruled against, claims by two former members of the University of Pennsylvania track and field team. The former athletes alleged that they were employees of their college or the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). The significance here is that being an “employee” entitles workers to minimum wage protections, set out by the Fair Labor Standards Act.
The 7th Circuit’s disallowance of the athlete’s employee status relied partially upon the Field Operations Handbook by the Department of Labor. The handbook posits that college students are not “employees”, simply because they participate in extracurricular activities. It was argued that when you look at the activity as a whole, the athletes are putting in the amount of time and effort to be afforded employee status.
The opinion pointedly said that college athletes participate for reasons “wholly unrelated to immediate compensation.” Going on to say, the athletes spend a tremendous amount of time and effort “without any real expectation of earning an income.” While there may be no expectation of earning an income, whether that is solely based on historical precedence is still in contention.
It all came down to whether the athletes were “playing” or “working”, and the conclusion was decisively that they are “playing.” The NCAA chief legal officer, Donald Remy, was pleased with the decision, saying “student athletes spend time practicing and competing to be their best, not as employees, but in the pursuit of their own excellence, to learn leadership through sports, and in the spirit of amateurism.”
It was a hard hit against those athletes that want to gain employee status, but the decision is consistent with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision that football players at Northwestern University were not able to form a union because they were not “employees” under current labor laws.
On a side note, antitrust law has taken a bit of a different approach to the problem. In the case O’Bannon v. NCAA, the NCAA’s prohibition on compensation to student athletes, beyond school tuition, was found to be anticompetitive and therefore unlawful. Student athletes continue to pursue “employee” status and the subject may be pertinent to the NLRB after a new administration takes the White House.