#Nextchat: Are College Athletes Students or Employees?

It seems that everyone wants a seat at the table these days, including college athletes. However, it’s not the boardroom table where they want a voice and a vote. It’s at the bargaining table.  

On April 24, 2014, in a college sports first, Northwestern University football players voted to unionize in hopes of achieving benefits such as scholarship protection and long-term health care. However, the ramifications of this historic vote have since been put on hold pending Northwestern’s appeal to the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C.

Supporters say a union would help athletes obtain better medical care and other benefits. Opponents feel the vote has opened a Pandora’s box of problems for colleges and universities, both private and public.

So Many Questions

Like an employer, a school provides a player with equipment for the job and a schedule (workouts, practices, game times), but should schools pay wages, withhold income taxes on financial aid, or control work conditions and performance?  Are college athletes “student-athletes” as the NCAA designates them, or are they employees of their respective schools?

Last July, NCAA President Mark Emmert testified about the value of college sports before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. In his testimony he stated that:

“As a person with more than four decades in higher education, I disagree with the notion that the student-athlete relationship with an institution is at all akin to an employment relationship. While not a party to the Northwestern v. National Labor Relations Board matter, last week the NCAA filed an amicus brief in support of Northwestern’s appeal. It is our position in that brief that scholarship student-athletes are not employees. Indeed, we argue they are not just primarily students, they are exclusively students. They are exclusively students because both of their major activities of being a student and being an athlete are interrelated in their overall educational pursuit.”

Another question surrounds the issue of whether an athlete’s serious injuries would be covered under the school’s workers compensation insurance. In the SHRM Online article “NLRB Will Review the Northwestern Case,” Tyrone Thomas, an attorney with Mintz Levin in Washington, D.C., “noted that if the football players are employees under the NLRA, arguably they are employees under other laws as well, such as workers’ compensation statutes.” 

Show Me the Money

The Southeastern Conference (SEC) collected $1.1 billion in in sports-related ticket sales, merchandise and licensing revenue in 2011. Would athletes, as employees, be eligible for “profit-sharing?” If so, which athletes? What if an athlete is on the swim team and not the No.1-ranked basketball team? 

As the college sports craze continues to grow, so will the national conversation about athletes as employees. What say you?

Please join @shrmnextchat at 3 p.m. ET on April 1 for #Nextchat with special guest Michael VanDervort (@mikevandervort). We’ll chat about whether or not athletes should be considered employees of schools and the HR issues that surround the controversy.  

Q1. Should athletes be considered employees of the school for which they play? Why or why not?

Q2. What are the advantages for college athletes if they are considered employees of schools for which they play?

Q3. What are the disadvantages for college athletes if they are considered employees of the schools for which they play?

Q4. What FLSA issues will arise if college athletes become employees of schools?     

Q5. In what cases should college athletes share in the school’s revenues from sports programs?  

Q6. If college athletes become employees, should players on a No. 1-ranked basketball team be compensated the same as members of the swim team? Why/why not? #Nextchat

Q7. Should college athletes be paid for the use of their images in advertisements?  

Q8. If college athletes become employees of schools, what are some of the new/unique issues that schools’ HR departments will face? 

What's a Twitter chat?





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