Are Student Athletes Our Employees?


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Guest Post By Jim Castagnera

In August the National Labor Relations Board dismissed the May 2014 decision by the agency’s Chicago-area regional director that shook the foundations of college football.  The director had ruled that Northwestern University’s Division I football players are primarily employees entitled to vote for union representation.  The presidentially appointed five-member Board in Washington tossed out the case; the Board’s decision is unappealable.

However, in the meantime, on October 20, 2014, PL McDonald Law, LLC of Philadelphia (PA) filed Sackos v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, Civil Action No.1:14-CV-1710 WTL-MJD in the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Indiana.  In addition to the NCAA, the named defendants include all 340 NCAA Division I schools.

Plaintiff Samantha Sackos is identified in the complaint as a Houston resident who “was employed by the University of Houston as an unpaid student athlete on the Women’s Soccer roster from academic year 2010-11 through academic year 2013-14.”  As such, the complaint alleges, “Sackos is a covered employee within the meaning of the FLSA.”

The complaint also asserts that the NCAA’s rules forbid member schools from paying their players, except for those who receive scholarship aid. “Defendants’ refusal to recognize, and pay, student athletes as temporary employees of NCAA Division I Member Schools under the FLSA, codified in NCAA bylaws, produces the following perverse result: work study participants who sell programs or usher at athletic events are paid, on average, $9.03 an hour, but student athletes whose performance creates such work study jobs in the athletic department are paid nothing.”

The 24-page complaint pleads for the following relief for all current and former student-athletes affiliated with the 340 named schools:

  • Permission to notify all such athletes of the action and their right to opt into it
  • Ultimately, unpaid wages, liquidated (double) damages
  • Pre- and post-judgment interest
  • An injunction of continued violations of the FLSA by the defendants

[The entire complaint may be accessed here.]

The suit appears to be part of a larger crusade in the arena of big-time college athletics. The lynchpin of this movement is an organization calling itself “SAME: Student Athlete Minimum-Wage Equity,” whose Statement of Principles reads, “Student athletes deserve to be treated the SAME as students in work study programs.

“Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), colleges are required to pay work study participants at least the federal minimum-wage of $7.25 per hour. Student athletes meet FLSA criteria more than work study participants do.  But the NCAA, NAIA and NJCAA prohibit even modest student athlete pay.

“SAME legal counsel aims to level the field of pay for all student athletes in NCAA, NAIA and NJCAA sports – regardless of their scholarship status, popularity or performance, team revenue generation, or gender…No student treated better, or worse.  All the SAME.” (SAME – Student Athlete Minimum-wage Equity)

The organization adds, “Collective Actions [the FLSA label for class actions] to change similar rules for NCAA Divisions II and III, the NAIA and NJCAA are on deck — if good faith efforts to effect change via cooperation are rejected or futile.”

At this writing, SAME continues to solicit additional plaintiffs to add to the Sackos class action.

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