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Workers Comp for "Student Athletes"?
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Workers Comp for "Student Athletes"?

Football players at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, filed an action with the local office of the Labor Relations Board in Chicago: they sued the university to change their status from "student athletes" to "Coemployees." They won their case. The university has appealed; meanwhile, the status of student athletes and the enormous revenues generated by college competition across the country - is suddenly up in the air.

Let's set aside the issue of whether the students will prevail when the university's appeal is heard at the National Labor Relations Board in Washington. We'll focus instead on issues closer to home: if students who participate in college athletics are determined to be "Coemployees," are they covered by minimum wage and overtime rules? According to the ruling, football players devote 50-60 hours per week to football, often at the expense of attending classes. More important for our purposes, are injured athletes eligible for workers compensation benefits? This would be an enormously complex issue, not just in terms of eligibility, but also in the context of how comp works: how would you determine wages for student employees who participate in athletics? Tuition waivers, stipends, housing and board are not "cowages." Would there be any basis for calculating indemnity benefits and insurance premiums? For participants in contact sports like football, would you follow the prevailing rate for the Professional Athlete class code (9179)? Even in the low-rate state of Massachusetts, the class rate is $25.37; in CT, the rate balloons to $40.81. The cost of this coverage -- assuming a payroll basis could be established -- could be enormous.

How would the workers comp system handle litigation for student athletes? For example, a football player with a knee injury would not be able to play (football = essential job responsibility), but he would be able to attend classes (school = essential function of a student). Presumably, medical bills associated with the injury would be covered, but are injured athletes "out of work"? Would they be eligible for indemnity?

To further complicate an already complicated situation, the NLRB is a federal program, but workers comp is a state program: while the feds could theoretically determine that student athletes are employees, they could not dictate how state workers comp systems should handle their claims.

Finally, in the unlikely event that the NLRB upholds the Chicago decision, the ruling would only apply to private universities. Athletes at state schools would be exempt, because the NLRB has no authority over government employees. There would be a huge disparity between the status of student athletes in private versus public institutions. All in all, we have the makings of a sublime mess!

Note to agents: Renaissance offers a number of productive ways to grow premium and grow your business. Issuing policies for "Coemployee athletes" is highly unlikely to be one of them.

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