In recent years, the debate over whether NCAA athletes should receive compensation for playing sports has gotten hot. Although it is recognized that college sports, especially football and basketball, generate massive piles of money for colleges across the country, paying student athletes is often regarded as taboo.
This week, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the lower court denying student athletes minimum wage under the FLSA, and denying that student athletes are even employees. The former student athletes that filed suit claimed that their participation was nearly indistinguishable from a full time job. The courts were not convinced.
College Athletics Are Extracurricular, Optional and Traditional
While there is no question about the difficulties NCAA athletes will face trying to manage both their education and athletics, the court was quick to point out that athletics are optional and extracurricular activities. Student athletes are not the only types of students that participate in extracurricular activities. The court is essentially viewing athletics as the same as the student newspaper, or other such clubs, that would be lead/sponsored by faculty but run by student participants.
The court also pointed out that paying college athletes would run afoul of the tradition of college athletics being amateur athletics. One of the concepts here is that college athletes play their sports not for money, but for the love of the game. In the high revenue sports, such as basketball and football, it is not uncommon to see collegiate players leave after only a couple years for the professional leagues and big money.
College Athletes Specifically Excluded by Dept. of Labor
The Department of Labor's Field Operations Handbook (FOH) specifically excludes student athletes from being classified as employees for the purposes of the FLSA. While the court recognized that the FOH is not an authoritative rules manual, it explains that it is instructional and has been relied upon in the past.
Additionally, the handbook distinguishes between work-study programs (which are clearly employment), and extracurricular programs, and specifically grouped interscholastic athletics in the extracurricular (non-employment) category. The court found the FOH persuasive in guiding their decision.