Former Villanova University football player Ralph “Trey” Johnson sued the N.C.A.A. in November 2019, claiming that college athletes should be considered employees at the schools they play for under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
The case has grown since then, with several former athletes joining as plaintiffs and seeking to form a class-action lawsuit.
This case is one of many blows the N.C.A.A. has taken to its current model of the relationship between athletes, their schools and the N.C.A.A.
In a statement, Johnson said that the lawsuit was “not about being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars.” The case was also not restricted to a few select athletes with endorsement deals.
“We are simply asking the N.C.A.A. to pay its student-athletes the basic minimum wage as required by federal law. They pay the students who tear the tickets and sell popcorn at our games. The least that the N.C.A.A. can do for those who bring so much money to the N.C.A.A. and its schools would be to pay them the minimum wage.”
In June 2021, the Supreme Court passed a unanimous decision in the case N.C.A.A. v. Alston to uphold a lower court’s ruling that the N.C.A.A. restrictions on “education-related benefits” for college athletes violated antitrust laws. These benefits included scholarships for graduate school, payment for academic tutoring and paid post-eligibility internships.
Though the Supreme Court case did not debate the issue of compensation, it was one of the first major blows to the N.C.A.A.’s status quo. Over the last two years, several states have passed legislation that challenged the N.C.A.A.’s rules prohibiting athletes from profiting off their NIL—name, image and likeness. Congress in both parties have proposed new legislation that would grant student athletes long-term medical care and a portion of the revenue they generate.
The National Labor Relations Board’s General Counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo, released a memo stating that she considered college athletes employees under federal law. The memo states that Abruzzo would consider referring to the “employees as mere student-athletes,” violating the Fair Labor Standards Act. It was a sign that the N.L.R.B. would be willing to pursue claims against colleges, conferences and the N.C.A.A. on behalf of the students.
“The broad language of Section 2(3) of the Act, the policies underlying the N.L.R.A., Board law, and the common lawfully support the conclusion that certain Players at Academic Institutions are statutory employees, who have the right to act collectively to improve their terms and conditions of employment.”
The case is currently in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. If the case is ruled in favor of the athletes, it will counter the Seventh and Ninth circuit’s rulings. The conflicting rulings would increase the likelihood that the Supreme Court would step in to make a final decision.
In 2021, the N.C.A.A. made $1.15 billion in revenue and distributed the bulk of it to its 1,200 member schools.
Moumita Basuroychowdhury is a Contributing Reporter at The National Digest. After earning an economics degree at Cornell University, she moved to NYC to pursue her MFA in creative writing. She enjoys reporting on science, business and culture news. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.