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Class Action Compares Athletes to Work-Study Students

Paul Steinbach

A former student-athlete has filed a class-action lawsuit against the NCAA and many member schools, accusing them of violating minimum-wage laws by refusing to pay players.

Trey Johnson, a former defensive back at Villanova University who currently competes in the Canadian Football League, filed the suit last week in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, days after the NCAA announced it was working toward allowing athletes to profit from the use of their names, images and likenesses.

At reported by The New York TimesJohnson's suit argues that athletes’ hours are tracked in the same way as those of students in a work-study program, and that if student ticket-takers, seating attendants and concession workers are being paid at least a minimum wage, the players performing on the field should be, too.

“The NCAA’s recent move to permit student athletes to benefit from their name, image and likeness illustrates that the untenable amateurism model is simply a smoke screen used to protect the pockets of the NCAA and its member schools,” Johnson's lawyer, Michael Willemin, told the Times. “By refusing to pay athletes the minimum wage, the NCAA is essentially saying that it is OK for athletes to be paid, as long as someone else is cutting the check.”

As reported by The Daily Tarheel student newsapaper at the University of North Carolina, Johnson's suit seeks for athletes to be considered employees, arguing that schools are violating federal minimum wage law, and may hinge on a case involving one of Johnson's former Villanova teammates, Poppy Livers. In Livers v. NCAA, a judge asserted that colleges should not expect special rules. That case was withdrawn after the NCAA argued it had exceeded the statute of limitations; still, it could open the door for a reevaluation of the legal relationship between athlete and college, according to The Daily Tarheel.

“We have two hurdles,” Willemin said. “We have to convince a court that employee tests should be conducted, and then we have to convince the court that when you look at the test, the student-athletes are employees.”

Johnson’s suit, which would cover all Division I student-athletes regardless of sport or scholarship status, aims to make the link between college athletics and work-study programs, both of which have supervisors keeping track of students' hours. 

“This is not about being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars, and we are not limiting this case only to the select few athletes that can receive endorsement deals,” Johnson said in a statement. “We are simply asking the NCAA to pay its student-athletes the basic minimum wage as required by federal law. They pay the students who tear the tickets and sell popcorn at our games. The least that the NCAA can do for those who bring so much money to the NCAA and its schools would be to pay them the minimum wage.”

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