Federal judge calls out NCAA for amateurism model

As the salaries for the highest-paid college football coaches, the National Collegiate Athletic Association is now coming under fire for its amateurism model in a system that doesn’t recognize its student-athletes as NCAA employees.

The NCAA has followed the amateurism model for decades in regard to collegiate sports. Walter Byers created the term ‘student-athlete’ upon being put in charge of collegiate athletics. It was created to discourage universities from treating players as professionals through compensation and to focus on the athletes being students first.

Related: NCAA revenue topped $1.1 billion in 2022

However, the model has come under intense scrutiny for more than a decade with former student-athletes pushing back against it publicly and later through the legal system. Most notably, former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon was the lead plaintiff in O’Bannon vs NCAA, an antitrust class action lawsuit regarding student-athletes not being compensated for their likeness being used in NCAA video games.

More recently, former Villanova football player Trey Johnson has served as a lead plaintiff for a group of athletes arguing through the legal system that they meet the definition of employees and should have rights under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

In June 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with college athletes against the NCAA with a ruling that limiting educational benefits for college athletes is a violation of antitrust laws of the Sherman Act. As the NCAA now fights against a class action suit alleging college athletes should be classified as university employees through the FLSA, it is now coming under fire from federal judges.

According to Front Office Sports, three judges on the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals grilled the NCAA on Wednesday regarding their amateurism model. During the appearance before the court, Judge Luis Felipe Restrepo questioned how college athletes can’t be considered employees at their respective universities.

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The panel lasted just over an hour, per The Athletic, with all three judges questioning the NCAA over glaring issues within the amateurism model. During the back-and-forth, one of the judges on the panel stated he doesn’t see any way that college athletes can’t be considered employees.

“The judges definitely have a nuanced understanding of the collegiate model and the way in which it’s been shifting. Their questions suggested that they think student-athletes should be considered employees for purposes of the Fair Labor Standards Act — at least at this stage in the case

Srah Wake, a partner at McGuire Woods, on the Johnson vs NCAA case (H/T The Athletic).

Related: NCAA committee weighing March Madness expansion

While there is no timeline for when a ruling could be made, a decision from the judges against the NCAA’s favor could have ripple effects for years to come. While the term student-athletes might stick around, players in multiple sports could be one step closer to being treated as employees in a billion-dollar industry that has slowly been forced to change.

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