Unions in College Sports: Student Athletes & Workers’ Compensation

by | Apr 11, 2014

Last month, a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regional director ruled that scholarship football players at Northwestern University are “employees” and therefore have the right to unionize. This ruling – if it stands – can lead to sweeping changes in collegiate athletics, especially for sports like football and basketball, which earn big revenue. Although appeals are likely to follow, student athletes at Northwestern are scheduled to vote on whether to unionize later this month.

The ruling stated several reasons why scholarship college football players are employees, including:

  • The revenue Northwestern makes from football players.
  • The control coaches have over scholarship athletes.
  • The amount of time players spend practicing or playing – often more than on studies.

Impact of the Ruling

While the case has drawn considerable attention for what it means to the future of college athletics, there are also other issues at play. By ruling that scholarship football players are “employees,” the NLRB opens to the door not only to unionization, but other legal issues unique to the employee-employer relationship. One of the most pressing implications of the ruling concerns the ability of student athletes to obtain workers’ compensation benefits.

Because scholarship football players are considered employees under the recent ruling, they could potentially be treated as employees under the Workers’ Compensation Act, which is designed to provide medical benefits and wage supplementation to employees who suffer injuries on the job. This means that players would be entitled to compensation for injuries suffered during practice or games. Depending on the nature of an injury, injured athletes could receive compensation well into their futures. Employees – in this case student athletes – cannot sue their employer if the employer has purchased workers’ compensation insurance covering any job-related injury.

The Future of College Sports

Whether or not injured players will receive compensation for on-field injuries is only one of the many questions raised by the recent ruling. As it stands, the ruling affects only private universities, but how it plays out will likely influence public schools. By forming unions, players would be able to engage in collective bargaining – a process of negotiations between employees and employers to regulate working conditions. This could lead to negotiations for improved health and safety standards – and possibly paid wages for college athletes.

There is no doubt about the enormous commercial value of college players’ talent and work, but there remains much debate about how we treat and compensate student athletes. While the ruling may provide students the right to obtain worker’s compensation benefits, it may preclude the students from suing their schools for negligent conduct.

Indeed, irrespective of the ruling, often student athletes on scholarship are required to sign a waiver giving up their rights to sue the university for negligence. Whether or not the waiver is enforceable by the university against the student varies from state to state.

The rights to compensation vary from state to state, but what is clear, is that someone looking to pursue a case needs to talk to an attorney to explore all options. At Chaikin, Sherman, Cammarata & Siegel, our Washington, DC personal injury lawyers have advocated on behalf of many injured athletes, including those at the collegiate and professional level.

We have handled cases involving the interplay of workers compensation with claims against other parties responsible for the injury which gives rise to the workers compensation claim. We also have had to deal with the enforceability of waivers and have handled many brain injury cases on behalf of collegiate athletes. If you have a question about how this new ruling may affect you or a student you know, please call the experienced personal injury lawyers at our office.

You can learn more about the rights of injured athletes by contacting our legal team at 202-644-8303.

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