Lamar Dawson had what sure felt like a job.
It took at least 40 hours a week and involved hard, physical labor that left him exhausted, sore and sometimes injured.
But when Dawson went to federal court to demand compensation from those who set the rules that guided his labor, the judges said what he did wasn’t a job at all.
“We conclude that the economic reality of the relationship between (the entities Dawson identified as his employers) and (Dawson) does not reflect an employment relationship,” wrote federal appeals court Justice Sidney Thomas for a unanimous three-judge panel.
Here’s the explanation for the ruling.
Dawson was a linebacker for the University of Southern California football team. He sued the PAC-12 Conference and the NCAA for back wages, including hourly compensation of at least the minimum wage plus overtime.
The court found that Dawson was not employed by the defendants and that the defendants were not employers of people like Dawson. Instead, it said the defendants are regulators who set the rules that universities and athletes are supposed to follow.
Last week’s decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals represents another in a series of decisions in which college athletes are seeking to have their status changed from student-athletes to employee-athletes.
Former or current college athletes have won some big victories as a consequence of their litigation strategies, including a $40 million settlement of a lawsuit with Electronic Art for using their images in video games.
But they’ve lost more than they’ve won because they’ve failed to show they meet the legal definition of employees. That’s no accident.
The term “student-athlete” is a legal construct specifically designed to spare university administrators the onerous burdens of an employer.
Dawson’s class-action lawsuit alleged the NCAA and the PAC-12 acted as an employer “of the class members” by “prescribing the terms and conditions under which student-athletes perform services.” Their failure to compensate employees, he alleged, was a “violation of federal and state labor laws.”
But what, legally speaking, is an employee? It has a broad, but not unlimited, definition because, according to legal precedent, “an individual may work for a covered enterprise and nevertheless not be an employee.”
Legal factors in establishing an employee/employer relationship include expectation of compensation and power to hire and fire.
Dawson’s football scholarship was irrelevant to the legal discussion because his scholarship was awarded by USC, which wasn’t named as a defendant.
The fact that universities, the conference and the NCAA generate substantial revenue also was not dispositive because “revenue does not automatically engender or foreclose the existence of an employment relationship.”
“We recently held that cosmetology students were not employees entitled to minimum wage despite the fact that they performed services for paying customers at salons run by their schools,” Thomas wrote.
Dawson was fighting an uphill legal battle because he was taking on more than just employment law.
Here’s an example. In 1963, a California state court ruled that the estate of a college football player who was killed along with team members in a plane crash should receive death benefits from his college under the state’s Workmen’s Compensation Act.
In 1965, the California legislature re-wrote the compensation act to specifically exclude “any person participating in (college) sports or athletics” from eligibility.
In 1987, a California state court ruled that a college athlete who “committed a tort on another student-athlete during a basketball game” was not an employee of his school. That meant the injured player could not sue his attacker’s school under the theory of “respondeat superior,” the legal doctrine making an employer liable for the work-related wrongdoing of an employee.
This kind of litigation has been moving through the courts for years now. Given the millions and millions of dollars generated by major college athletic programs, college athletes surely will continue to seek their piece of the revenue pie.
Even Justice Thomas, noting the absence of a possible defendant, acknowledged that dismissing Dawson’s case is hardly the end of the matter.
“In this putative class action case, Dawson does not allege that he was an employee of USC, so the pure question of employment is not before us, and we need not consider whether he had employment status as a football player, nor whether USC was an employee. That question is left, if at all, for another day,” he wrote.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.
Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.