Seventh Circuit Holds Student Athletes Are Not Employees Under the FLSA

There have been a bevy of legal proceedings in recent years involving National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”) student athletes making various arguments with the goal of having themselves classified as employees entitled to the benefits of employment from the NCAA and the colleges and universities they attend and for which they play intercollegiate athletics. During the midst of NCAA Division I’s March Madness, I figured it is a good time to take a look at one such case recently decided by the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

In Berger v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, former student athletes at the University of Pennsylvania, the NCAA, and more than 120 other NCAA Division I universities and colleges alleged that student athletes are employees who are entitled to a minimum wage under the Fair Labor Standards Act. After the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana ruled against the student athletes and dismissed their claims, the Seventh Circuit reviewed the case on appeal.

After discussing the FLSA’s definitions of employee and employer, various Department of Labor opinions and guidelines pertaining to student athletes, and other cases where student athletes both successfully and unsuccessfully brought claims for unpaid compensation, the Seventh Circuit found:

“Appellants in this case have not, and quite frankly cannot, allege that the activities they pursued as student athletes qualify as ‘work’ sufficient to trigger the minimum wage requirements of the FLSA. Student participation in collegiate athletics is entirely voluntary. Moreover, the long tradition of amateurism in college sports, by definition, shows that student athletes – like all amateur athletes – participate in their sports for reasons wholly unrelated to immediate compensation. Although we do not doubt that student athletes spend a tremendous amount of time playing for their respective schools, they do so – and have done so for over a hundred years under the NCAA – without any real expectation of earning an income. Simply put, student-athletic ‘play’ is not ‘work,’ at least as the term is used in the FLSA. We therefore hold, as a matter of law, that student athletes are not employees and are not entitled to a minimum wage under the FLSA.”

So while you root on your favorite school or pull for the teams you picked in your brackets, those kids will not be receiving any wages for their efforts unlike those of you who filled out your brackets while you were on the clock and/or win something more than bragging rights for coming out on top of your pool.