Court Ruling Affirms NCAA Athletes Are Not University Employees, Expert Says

Liz Carey

Minneapolis, MN ( – With Virginia’s win over Texas Tech last night for the national title, the president of the organization responsible for the tournament continues to assert they are not employees of their respective colleges and universities and, therefore, not entitled to workers’ compensation protection if they are injured while playing.

The president of the National Collegiate Athletics Association, Mark Emmertt, said last Wednesday that a recent ruling in an antitrust case only strengths that organization’s assertion that student athletes are not employees of the universities they play for. Emmert made the comments to the Associated Press at Minneapolis, Minn.’s U.S. Bank Arena where the NCAA’s Men’s Final Four Basketball Tournament is scheduled to be held this weekend.

Judge Claudia Wilken ruled earlier this month in Alston vs. NCAA, that the NCAA violated antitrust laws. In that case, plaintiffs argued that the NCAA cannot put caps on colleges’ compensation and benefits to students on top of the money students are given in the form of scholarships and cost-of-attendance payments.

Wilken ruled that the NCAA cannot ban schools from giving student athletes more benefits, as long as they are linked to the student’s education. She stopped short of saying college could or should pay athletes to play.

“There were also components of that ruling that reinforced what a number of judges and administrative court proceedings have reinforced and that is that college sports is about student-athletes playing student-athletes not employees playing employees,” Emmert told the Associated Press. “And the fact that, once again, another federal decision has come down reinforcing the fundamentals of what college sport is about, we’re very pleased with that. And the way that she wrote what could and could not be prohibited by the NCAA is not in any way fundamentally inconsistent with what we’ve been doing for about a decade now.”

The benefits in question would cover things like “computers, science equipment, musical instruments” and other non-cash educational benefits.

The benefits would not cover things like unemployment insurance or workers’ compensation insurance, since student athletes are considered students instead of employees.

The ruling comes after a previous judgement from Wilken in a case where a former UCLA basketball player alleged the NCAA was using college players’ likenesses without compensating them for it. In that case, Wilken disagreed and said the NCAA did not have to compensate the student athletes, but that its decision to ban schools from providing student athletes with scholarships that cover the full cost of attendance was illegal.

The NCAA has argued that student athletes should not be paid because a) the amateur status of the players is what drives interest in the sport and b) that their amateur status helps them fit into their academic communities better.

Student athletes’ non-paid status also ensures they are not employees and therefore not entitled to federally recognized benefits like workers’ compensation, according to a recent study at the University of Tennessee.

In that study, researchers said student athletes as non-employees of the university began in the 1950s.

“Student-athletes fell in a legal gray area between full-time students and employees of NCAA universities, so their status would be open to interpretation by the courts,” the study found. “Additionally, the NCAA website (2017) states that for student athletes to be eligible they must not sign ‘contracts with professional teams,’ or accept a ‘salary for participating in athletics.’ These two stipulations – with some exceptions based on sport, prevent the student-athletes from accepting a wage. Coincidentally, payment from employer to employee is a fundamental aspect of an employment relationship. Without clear proof of payment or the employer-employee relationship it remains difficult for student-athletes to convince a court of law or employment board that they deserve worker’s compensation.”

Covering student athletes with workers’ compensation could potentially bankrupt some schools, the study found.

“According to USA Today’s Annual Report on NCAA Finances (2017), 28 schools out of the 230 in the survey had revenue of over $100,000,000,” the study found. “Conversely, a number of schools on the list, including schools out of Division I FBS level, would be put into a situation of financial distress if they were required to cover the full medical expenses and worker’s compensation of their student-athletes in all sports.”

But, according to the study, the National Labor Relations Board’s ruling in 2014 suggests that student athletes are the employees of colleges and universities and, therefore, should be covered by workers’ compensation insurance by the institutions they play for.

In the case of Northwestern football players suing for collective bargaining rights, the NLRB found in a non-binding decision that the “broad definition (of an employee) defines anyone as an employee who, ‘performs services for another under a contract of hire, subject to the other’s control or right of control, and in return for payment’,” the study said. “This brings the situation back to the same employer-employee question that is central to all of the NCAA student-athlete workers’ compensation claims. The NLRB (2014) posited that, ‘players receiving scholarships to perform football-related services for the Employer (Northwestern University) under a contract for hire in return for compensation are subject to the Employer’s control and, therefore, employees within the meaning of the act.’”

In response to Wilken’ decision, the NCAA said student athletes are not paid professionals.

“The court’s decision recognizes that college sports should be played by student-athletes, not by paid professionals. The decision acknowledges that the popularity of college sports stems in part from the fact that these athletes are indeed students, who must not be paid unlimited cash sums unrelated to education,” said Donald Remy, NCAA chief legal office in a statement. “NCAA rules actively provide a pathway for tens of thousands of student-athletes each year to receive a college education debt-free.”

The NCAA has 90 days to comply with the court’s ruling, although the organization has already indicated that it may appeal the court’s decision.

“Although the court rejected the plaintiffs’ desire for a free market system, we will explore our next steps as appropriate,” Remy said in his statement. “We believe the ruling is inconsistent with (a previous) decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals… That decision held that the rules governing college athletics would be better developed outside the courtroom, including rules around the education-related support that schools provide.”

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