By now we are all familiar with the Alston case that shifted the dynamics of college sports, as well as what it means to be a student athlete. The Alston case was just the start, and allowed students to receive compensation of their name, image, and likeness.
The Alston case may have solved some of the issues surrounding athlete endorsement, but it has not solved a much larger issue of paying athletes for their labor.
But, college sports is ever changing and there are multiple cases working their way up the system that focus on the fundamental business model being utilized by the NCAA.Some of these may be as or maybe more impactful than the Alston case.
One of these cases that willd make a decision on the labor of college athletes is Johnson vs. NCAA - a case every athletic director and conference is watching carefully.
What is the Johnson vs. NCAA case about?
The case began when Ralph “Trey” Johnson, a Villanova football player, who sued the NCAA and twenty-four universities in November 2019.
The case was heard in the United States Eastern District Court of Pennsylvania and argued that under the Fair Labor Standards Act, student athletes should be considered employees. Additionally, the NCAA should be considered a joint employer along with the school an athlete is competing for.
The case has since grown as well as been amended and now includes other current and former athletes who hope they can be certified as a class action lawsuit.
This isn’t the first time labor laws have become involved in collegiate athletics, and last fall the National Labor Relations Board general counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo, published a memo stating that she believed college football players as well as other athletes participating in revenue-producing sports at private universities are employees and thus should be awarded rights to collectively bargain.
Abruzzo also warned of legal action against the NCAA if they continue referring to players as “Student Athletes” and stated the term was a purposeful misclassification of college athletes and their status. This memo was the catalyst for two athlete advocacy groups filing labor practice charges against the NCAA in the following months of its release.
Johnson V. NCAA is slowly making its way up the courts and district court judges refused to throw the case against the NCAA out despite attempts from the schools and NCAA. The case is currently at the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and will focus on the question of whether college athletes CAN be employees.
If the Third Circuit court were to rule in favor of the student athletes, they would be going in the opposite direction of the Seventh and Ninth Circuit courts who both ruled against athletes being employees in the Berger V NCAA and Dawson V NCAA. This split would increase the chance of the case going to the Supreme Court which would be quite significant and sweeping for the NCAA.
In today’s climate, paying student-athletes might seem pretty self-explanatory and most fans of college athletics can attest to the hours as well as revenue students bring into the school.
What could the NCAA argue to continue keeping student athletes unpaid?
The NCAA’s defense vastly lies in precedent and the fact amateurism is legally justifiable business model. The organization has been practicing amateurism for decades and has cases in its favor to back up the current business model. College athletics and the classification of “student-athlete” has been around for 60 years.
So what does Johnson V. NCAA mean for the future of the NCAA?
If it were to successfully make it to the Supreme Court and if the NCAA were to lose, we would see the end of amateurism as we know it.
Not only would athletes receive direct compensation or pay for their hard work on the field, they would also receive employee protections such as bargaining rights, worker’s comp, etc. This may also change the way colleges utilize the revenue they receive from college athletics as well as the way NCAA distributes their profits.
An NCAA win in the case would have equally significant ramifications, and a ruling from the supreme court regarding the NCAA’s business model and the status of the student athlete holds heavy weight. This would set a precedent, binding student athletes to amateur college sports without pay or other employment benefits.
While it may take a while for us to see a final verdict for this case, it is clear that amateurism is already being questioned and things like NIL are shifting the NCAA further and further away from it. The ruling of Johnson v. NCAA, whether in favor or not in favor of the NCAA, will have heavy repercussions on the NCAA and its very foundation.