An Overview of Labor Statutes and How They Can Help College Athletes

Post Authored by Haley Jenkins

In America, people expect to be paid for the time they work. Federal laws have been enacted to ensure that workers are protected from employers by guaranteeing them the right to collectively bargain and by ensuring that employees receive compensation to which they are entitled. One such law is the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”),[1] which prevents employers from interfering with employees’ rights to organize and negotiate terms of their employment via collective bargaining. The NLRA protects employee unions and allows similarly situated employees to band together to negotiate collectively–as opposed to individually–for better wages and working conditions.[2] The Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”)[3] acts in a similar manner. It established a federal minimum wage,[4] and requires employers to compensate employees at a rate of 1.5 times their regular pay rate for all hours worked in excess of 40 hours per week.[5] Most employees across the country are protected, one way or another, by these laws. But what happens to individuals who are not traditional “employees”?

College athletics as an industry earns hundreds of thousands of dollars each season. However, the young women and men at its center receive no compensation for their work. In the last 10 years, student-athletes have asked courts to hold they are employees and protect them under the NLRA and FLSA. In January 2014, 85 Northwestern grant-in-aid football players[6] filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”), and asked it to treat grant-in-aid players as employees under § 152(3).[7] The NLRB, in August 2015, decided that the athletes could not unionize under the NLRA, which prevented them from reaping the benefits of that act.[8] The Seventh Circuit similarly held that former student-athletes were not “employees” of their respective universities under the FLSA in December 2016.[9]

Further, many courts have long held that student-athletes are not employees in the context of workers’ compensation laws. Thus, they cannot recover compensation from their schools if they suffer injuries while playing their sport.[10]

It would likely take a legislative change for college athletes to be considered employees under the NLRA or FLSA. However, such a change would prevent hundreds of young student-athletes from being exploited and empower them to ask for better wages and working conditions together–the exact reasons why the NLRA and FLSA were enacted in the first place.

[1] 29 U.S.C. §§ 151, et seq.

[2] 29 U.S.C. § 157.

[3] 29 U.S.C. §§ 201, et seq.

[4] 29 U.S.C. § 206.

[5] 29 U.S.C. § 207.

[6] A “grant-in-aid” football player refers to a Northwestern football player who receives a scholarship in return for his participation in the Northwestern University football program.

[7] Northwestern University and College Athletes Players Assn. (CAPA), 362 NLRB No. 167, slip op. at 1 (Aug. 17, 2015).

[8] Id.

[9] Berger v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, 843 F.3d 285 (7th Cir. 2016).

[10] See, e.g., Rensing v. Ind. State Univ. Bd. of Trustees, 444 N.E. 2d 1170 (Ind. 1983); State Comp. Ins. Fund v. Indus. Comm’n, 135 Colo. 570, 314 P.2d 288 (1957); Waldrep v. Tex. Emp’rs Ins. Ass’n, 21 S.W. 3d 692 (Tex. App. 2000); Coleman v. W. Mich. Univ., 125 Mich. App. 35, 336 N.W.2d 224 (1983).

About the Author:

JENKINS_head-shots_382x215Haley litigates on behalf of Stephan Zouras, LLP clients in both class and individual litigation. A spirited advocate, Haley represents people in a broad spectrum of legal disputes ranging from unpaid wages and employee misclassification, to antitrust, consumer fraud, whistleblower actions, and qui tam cases. Haley joined the Stephan Zouras team as a law clerk in 2015 while attending law school. Haley graduated cum laude from Chicago-Kent College of Law in 2016, where she was a member of the Dean’s List, served as the Vice President of Fundraising for the Student Humanitarian Network, and was a two-time regional champion with the Chicago-Kent Trial Advocacy Team. Haley and her cases have been profiled by numerous media outlets including the Chicago Tribune, Crain’s Chicago, and FundFire.

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