Can College Athletes Get Workers’ Comp? – The Northwestern Case

History of College Athlete Workers’ Compensation

For more than a half-century, college athletes have been unable to collect workers’ compensation for injuries incurred while competing on behalf of their respective universities. The reason for such mistreatment can be traced to a 1950s case where a widow of a college football player who died during a game was denied compensation after a court determined that “student-athletes” are not employees. Since that time, Universities nationwide have used the dreaded phrase “student-athlete” as both a sword and a shield to avoid providing college players with even the most basic of protections—such as workers’ comp.

But such logic has come under fire in recent times, signaling that the landscape of major college athletics may be in for a dramatic change. Given the violent nature of certain sports and the fact that medical coverage for injuries terminates when a student’s enrollment does, a dramatic change is long overdue.

Northwestern football players deemed “employees” of the University

In March 2014, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) concluded that football players at Northwestern University who receive scholarships are employees of the school and thus possess the right to unionize. The NLRB’s opinion rejected the argument that student-athletes are “primarily students,” noting that college football players are recruited for their athletic ability rather than academics, are required to dedicate substantial amounts of time to sport rather than to study, and are compensated in monetary scholarships rather than class credit. Additionally, the NLRB cited the significant amount of revenue that Northwestern football generates for the University as further evidence of the player’s status as employees.

The decision of the regional board was subsequently appealed to the full NLRB in Washington D.C.; to date, a ruling is still pending. Regardless of what the full board finds, the case will most likely be subject to further appeal. In fact, it is possible that a final decision may not be rendered until the U.S. Supreme Court has its say. This reality aside, the significance of the regional director’s decision that Northwestern football players are employees of the University cannot be overlooked. For example, as employees of the University, it follows that student-athletes would be entitled to workers’ compensation coverage for medical expenses and perhaps even temporary or permanent disability.

Workers’ compensation for college athletes is especially necessary for those players who incur substantial injury that requires years of rehabilitation. Under most state law (Maryland’s included), workers’ compensation covers 100% of medical bills for employees who are injured on account of their jobs. However, unless a student-athlete is literally paralyzed while competing on behalf of his or her university, the NCAA permits schools to cut ties with former players once they are no longer students.

In many cases, lingering medical issues continue far beyond the end of a student-athlete’s enrollment. In such cases, the burden to pay for continuing medical treatment falls squarely on the former players themselves, oftentimes resulting in a lifetime of debt. Given the fact that the NCAA is a billion dollar business that profits off the back of its players, you tell me if this seems fair?

What does the Northwestern case mean for student-athletes in Maryland?

The answer to this question will not be fully realized while the case is pending appellate review. If the full NLRB were to adopt the opinion of the regional director, the decision would have national reach at numerous private universities. While the regional director’s ruling was limited solely to the Northwestern football program, the rationale therein would not be so limited; certainly it would open the door for similar arguments at other private institutions.

The decision’s impact on public schools like the University of Maryland is not as clear. This is because the NLRB only applies to private sector employees, whereas state-run public universities are governed by state labor law. That being said, state law oftentimes adopts legal interpretations set forth by the NLRB. Moreover, it is hard to imagine a system where private universities under the NLRB have the ability to offer recruits the advantages of collective bargaining, while major programs at public schools do not. Given the fact that over 85% of Division I football programs are public institutions, it would appear necessary for state legislatures to get involved and level the playing field. In fact, legislation is already being explored in Michigan, Ohio and Connecticut in direct response to the forthcoming issues that will come in the wake of the Northwestern case.

Another unanswered question pertains to student-athletes on scholarship for sports other than major D1 football. In the regional director’s opinion, great emphasis was placed on the amount of revenue the University received from its football program. However, this is simply not the case for the vast majority of college athletics. In terms of revenue, the only other sport that is even comparable to D1 football is D1 men’s basketball.

It is not clear whether all student-athletes will be recognized as employees, or rather, if application of the NLRB’s ruling will be geared solely to those who partake in revenue-generating sports. Relatedly, as athletic programs undoubtedly generate more revenue at some schools than at others, will the new standard be applied on a school-by-school basis, or will it apply uniformly to all D1 football programs?

There could also be issues with Title IX, which requires schools to evenly apportion resources between men’s and women’s athletics. If men’s football and basketball programs are allowed to collectively bargain for a bigger cut of the athletic department’s revenue, what would be the Title IX implications? If universities are required to provide workers’ compensation for male student-athletes, why not for females? Surely, there is an argument to be made in favor of equal access to such benefits.

If one thing is clear, it’s that there are more questions than answers at this point. Regardless, as it currently stands, the Northwestern case reflects a significant victory for all student-athletes on scholarship, as it has opened a door that has been kept firmly shut for decades. If student-athletes are in fact university employees, workers’ compensation would only be the beginning.

Should student-athletes in Maryland file for workers’ compensation?

YES! Given the shifting tides of today’s status quo, the prospect of college athletes receiving workers’ compensation has never been stronger.

As explained above, it would appear as if workers’ compensation and other similar benefits would be more easily obtained by student-athletes in “revenue-generating” sports (i.e. men’s football and basketball) at high profile D1 schools (e.g. UMD). Nevertheless, there are arguments to be made on behalf of all student-athletes on scholarship. Accordingly, individuals who participate in collegiate athletics outside of men’s football and basketball should also consider consulting an attorney to explore the possibility of filing a workers’ compensation claim.