Tag Archives: NCAA

College Athletes Unionized? They Must Be Employees First

Northwestern University Quarterback Kain Colter

Northwestern University quarterback Kain Colter announced plans to form the first labor union for college athletes. The College Athletes Players Association, in concert with the Steel Workers (who have agreed to pay the legal bills for the effort) will try to unionize college athletes. The big question: whether college athletes can be considered employees.  If certified by the National Labor Relations Board, the union will be called the College Athletes Players Association. In order for the association to be recognized as a union, the players have to prove they are employees and that the NCAA or each school is its employer. Most experts indicate this is an uphill legal fight.

Worker’s compensation lawyers see everything through the prism of worker’s compensation law. Most State statutory schemes presume that a worker is an employee, except where the employee may be considered a volunteer or an independent contractor. Where the top five power conferences ACC, SEC, Pac-12, Big Ten, Big Twelve generate nearly $10 billion annually, it is hard to claim players are “volunteers” in this system.

Some college athletes who have been seriously injured have filed worker’s compensation claims. Those claims have all been dismissed on the notion that the injured player was not a “employee” and thus not entitled to benefits. (see our prior blog posts on this issue

Athletes who successfully use their college careers as a platform for a later career in professional sports are not the norm. In many situations, college players are injured, precluding any further athletic career for pay. There is no compensation awarded for this lost potential career. Furthermore, if an athlete is injured while on campus, once they leave school or graduate, the school generally does not covered future medical costs for that injury.  

Worker’s compensation lawyers will be monitoring the case with interest.

The surprising history of student-athletes and workers’ comp (Part 2)

In a post last week I mentioned a fascinating recent article in The Atlantic magazine on the history and often hypocrisy of the NCAA revealed the role workers’ comp played in the history of college athletics. As it turns out, the term “student-athlete” came into play in the 1950s when the widow of a student who died playing football in Colorado for the Fort Louis A&M Aggies brought a worker’s compensation claim for death benefits. Part of the ruling was based on the argument that, “the college did not receive a direct benefit,” from the athletic program – a description that would be difficult to use today.

Under Wisconsin worker’s compensation law,the value of an employee’s meals and lodging expenses become part of their average weekly wage for purposes of compensation. These items are provided to scholarship collegiate athletes, in addition to their paid tuition.

While some may see the term “student-athlete” as having a paternalistic or even sentimental notion, the nature of modern collegiate athletics suggest otherwise. With mega-deal television contracts, huge endorsement deals with corporate sponsors, ticket sales, concessions, and host of other profit-making ventures, the fact that student-athletes cannot receive compensation can appear hypocritical on the surface. (A counter-point response, however, is that such compensation may not be feasible, given the amount of money an athletic department and university must spend to maintain and upgrade all of their athletic teams and facilities).

Under Wisconsin worker’s compensation law, the value of an employee’s meals and lodging expenses become part of their average weekly wage for purposes of compensation. These items are provided to scholarship collegiate athletes, in addition to their paid tuition. Given the money generated by these athletes for the university and their receipt of these “things of value,” a viable argument exists for worker’s compensation benefits for injured student athletes.

In The Atlantic, Continue reading

The surprising history of student-athletes and workers’ comp (Part 1)

The term “student-athlete” has a surprising history

In Taylor Branch’s fascinating article, “The Shame of College Sports,” in September’s The Atlantic magazine on the history and often hypocrisy of the NCAA, acclaimed author Taylor Branch reveals an unexpected reason behind the usage of the term “student–athlete”: avoiding worker’s compensation liability.

Due to the “special” status of a student-athlete under the NCAA, however, they are not entitled to worker’s compensation for their injuries under the law.

Collegiate athletes certainly suffer injuries during their playing careers on campus. Many of these athletes receive items of value from the university, in the form of scholarships, lodging, meals, athletic gear, etc, which, if they were called “employees,” would be part of their wages for worker’s compensation purposes. Due to the “special” status of a student-athlete under the NCAA, however, they are not entitled to worker’s compensation for their injuries under the law.

According to Mr. Branch, the term “student-athlete” came into play in the 1950s when the widow of a student who died playing football in Colorado for the Fort Louis A&M Aggies brought a worker’s compensation claim for death benefits. The Colorado Supreme Court, agreed with the college that the student was not an employee at the time of injury, using the following interesting language (ironic in the big business of current revenue-driven college athletics):

“It is significant that the college did not receive a direct benefit from the activities, since the college was not in the football business and received no benefit from the field of recreation. In fact, the state conducted institution, supported by taxpayers, could not as a matter of business enter into the maintenance of a football team for the purpose of making a profit directly or indirectly out of the taxpayers’ money.” (State Compensation Insurance Fund v. Industrial Commission, 135 Colo. 570, 314 P.2d 288 (1957))

Wow. A court may have some difficulty using those words in today’s atmosphere. Regardless, Branch’s article detailed how, since that ruling, the NCAA has continued to use the term “student-athlete” as a shield.

Check back with us on Monday to find what Wisconsin workers’ compensation law can tell us about this issue.