House Committee Advances Bill Banning Student-Athletes as Employees

College athletes might soon be paid directly by universities, but that doesn't mean they'll be considered employees. Or will they?
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Published on June 28, 2024
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  • The House Committee on Education and the Workforce passed a bill preventing student-athletes from being considered employees of their universities.
  • A recent NCAA settlement paved the way for universities to pay athletes, but employee status remains unclear.
  • Support for the bill is divided along party lines.
  • Students at several universities have engaged in legal battles in an attempt to unionize.

At a time when student-athletes march inexorably toward professionalization, paid as employees of the universities for which they play, one U.S. House of Representatives bill potentially stands in the way.

If Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., and his Republican colleagues succeed in their quest, student-athletes will be prevented from attaining employee status.

But does this bill have any chance of passing?

The 'Protecting Student Athletes' Economic Freedom Act'

Introduced by Rep. Good in May, H.R. 8534, otherwise known as the "Protecting Student Athletes' Economic Freedom Act," seeks to "prohibit a student-athlete from being considered an employee of an institution, a conference, or an association based on participation in certain intercollegiate athletics."

A statement on Good's website says the bill "aims to preserve the integrity of collegiate sports and safeguard educational opportunities for student-athletes." Good wrestled for Liberty University and later worked in the school's athletics department."As a former college athlete, I strongly believe America's long tradition of college sports should not be ruined by reclassifying student-athletes as employees, or moving to unionization," Good said in the statement. "My legislation will help maintain a balance between athletics and academics, ensuring that college sports programs remain viable, beneficial, and enjoyable for all student-athletes."

A member of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, Good was joined by 10 Republican co-sponsors, including Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, who played football for the University of Miami and the New York Jets. The committee approved the bill on June 13 by a vote of 23 to 16, with yeas and nays split along party lines.

"Student-athletes attend their institutions to receive an education and to excel in their respective sports — not for the purpose of becoming employees who punch a timecard every day," said Committee Chairwoman Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., in the statement.

Student-Athletes Increasingly Gaining Professional Status

Good's bill amplifies the crescendoing din around professionalism echoing across the landscape of college athletics. For years, critics of intercollegiate sports, as governed by the NCAA, have argued that college athletes should be paid for helping to generate millions of dollars for their universities.

Now they are. Thanks to the 2021 Supreme Court ruling in NCAA v. Alston, student-athletes can profit from name, image, and likeness (NIL) deals, and many athletes have taken advantage of this new reality.

The Alston ruling, however, did not open the door for universities to pay athletes salaries directly.

That, too, has changed as a result of last May's historic agreement between the NCAA and the Power 5 conferences (Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and Southeastern Conference), which paved the way for universities to pay their student-athletes.

Under the terms of a settlement in a class-action suit, House v. NCAA, $2.77 billion in damages will be paid over 10 years, satisfying 14,000 student-athlete claims as far back as 2016. The NCAA will cover 41% of this total, while the Power 5 conferences will meet an additional 24%.

The remaining "Group of 5" conferences — American Athletic, Mid-American, Conference USA, Mountain West, and Sun Belt — will account for another 10%.

Conferences competing in the Football Championship Subdivision will pay 14%, and the non-football D-I conferences will cover 12%.

Looking forward, the proposed agreement — which still requires a federal judge's approval — allows the Power 5 schools to allocate up to roughly $20 million annually for their student-athletes. Programs outside the Power 5 should be able to opt in as well.

Employee Status for Student-Athletes Stirs Controversy

Yet the matter of athletes gaining "employee" status and potentially unionizing remains unclear, as do many of the details resulting from this landmark settlement.

The concept isn't exactly new. Ten years ago, Northwestern University football players attempted, unsuccessfully, to unionize, decrying the NCAA's "dictatorship."

In June, the Dartmouth College men's basketball team voted to unionize, joining the Service Employees International Union Local 560, which has represented Dartmouth employees for years.

Meanwhile, a case rages on involving the National Labor Relations Board, the NCAA, the Pac-12 conference, and the University of Southern California, where several student-athletes wish to gain employee classification.

Similarly, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals is considering Johnson v. NCAA, a case involving several student-athletes, led by a former Villanova University football player, arguing that athletes should be compensated as employees.

Not everyone thinks employee status and unionization are positive steps. NCAA President Charlie Baker said in an interview that he hopes the pending settlement, if approved, would enable universities to pay athletes absent employee status.

"A lot of the conversations I've had with people in Congress is, 'The reason we're interested in employment is because of the compensation question,'" Baker said. "If the court blesses [the antitrust settlement], then it puts us in a position where we can go to Congress and say one of the three branches of the federal government blessed this as a model to create compensation without triggering employment."

The NCAA has for years lobbied Congress to pass laws preventing student-athletes from earning employee status, as have the Power 5 conferences, fearing that rising costs would limit their ability to maintain a full array of intercollegiate sports teams. It's no surprise, then, that the NCAA and the conferences have publicly supported Good's bill.

House and Senate Democrats see it differently and have promoted bills supporting college athletes' right to unionize and collectively bargain.

Rep. Lori Trahan, D-Mass., a former Division I volleyball player, opposes Good's bill.

"Once again, Republicans in Congress have decided to plow forward with legislation to limit the rights of college athletes with little to no input from athletes themselves," Trahan said in a statement.

"It's disappointing that GOP members of the Education and Workforce Committee are choosing to advance a bill targeting a hypothetical issue over the very real challenges currently facing athletes, including Title IX loopholes that hurt women and international athletes not having NIL rights. If House Republicans decide to force a vote on this partisan legislation on the floor, I will vote no, and I will continue to encourage my Democratic colleagues to do the same."

Some suggest Good's bill faces long odds given its lack of bipartisan support and the Democrats' control of the Senate. The next step in the legislative process is for the House to schedule a vote or debate.

Pass or not, the bill represents yet another step toward congressional intervention as an attempt to regulate and add clarity to the increasingly bewildering state of college sports in America.