Are Division I Intercollegiate Athletes Employees? Perhaps

July 16, 2024

By Barbara A. Lee, Ph.D.

Challenges to the rules of the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) have increased in recent years. The U.S. Supreme Court struck the NCAA’s rule against paying intercollegiate athletes for use of their name, image and likeness (NIL) in 2021.[1] The General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, a federal agency that regulates labor relations in the private sector, stated that intercollegiate athletes can be classified as employees and allowed them to attempt to unionize[2]—as the recent case involving Dartmouth College demonstrated.[3] The NCAA and several Division I athletic conferences recently settled a $2.8 billion lawsuit brought by former intercollegiate athletes who demanded payment for NIL usage that accrued prior to the Supreme Court’s 2021 ruling.[4] And on July 11, 2024, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that six intercollegiate athletes could maintain a lawsuit against the NCAA and the institutions they attended that claims that they are employees under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and thus deserve pay for the time spent in athletics activities.[5]

The students, who had participated in one or more Division I sports (including football, baseball, swimming and diving, tennis, and soccer), claimed that the amount of control of their activities levied by their coaches, and the restrictions on how they spent their time while enrolled, meant that they met the requirements of the wage and hour law for employment protection. Thus, they claimed, they deserved at least minimum wage for the hours that they spent in these mandatory activities. The defendants disagreed, arguing that the students were amateur athletes, not professionals, and did not qualify for the protections of the FLSA. The defendants moved to have the case dismissed by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, but that court denied the motion, ruling that Division I intercollegiate athletes were analogous to unpaid interns.[6] That court analyzed the students’ claims under a test used by the U.S. Department of Labor for determining whether interns were entitled to pay under the  FLSA.[7] The court also reviewed a 2016 case, Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures, Inc.,[8] that analyzed whether college students serving as interns should be paid. The trial court in Johnson found that the allegations of the students with respect to the time they spent, their lack of control over how they spent their time, and several other of the factors involving interns, could meet the test for employee status, and that dismissal was inappropriate. The NCAA and college defendants asked the trial court to certify its ruling for an interlocutory appeal, rather than waiting until the trial court had ruled on the merits, and that court did so.[9] The appellate court agreed to hear the appeal.

On July 11, 2024, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled 3-0 that the students could proceed with their case.[10] The appellate court rejected the “amateurism” defense, and agreed with the trial court’s denial of the motion to dismiss, although for other reasons, finding that the students might be able to provide sufficient evidence to meet the FLSA requirements for employee status. The appellate court found that the trial court’s use of the test for interns was erroneous, but affirmed the trial court’s ruling on different grounds. The appellate court said that the Glatt test did not control this set of facts because interns are learning skills that relate to their academic training, while intercollegiate athletics did not relate to the students’ academic curriculum. The court noted that time spent in required athletics activities actually was detrimental to the students’ academic performance because the time and scheduling requirements interfered with their choice of courses and, in some cases, their choice of majors.

Referring to earlier cases involving the determination of whether a particular individual or set of individuals were “employees” entitled to FLSA protections, the appellate court created a four-part test:

1. Whether the individual(s) perform services for another party;

2. Whether the services are necessarily and primarily for the other party’s benefit;

3. Whether the individual(s) are under that party’s control or right of control; and

4. Whether the services are performed in return for express or implied compensation or in-kind benefits.[11]

The court added: “The touchstone remains whether the cumulative circumstances of the relationship between the athlete and the college or NCAA reveal an economic reality that is that of an employee-employer.”[12]

It is likely that this litigation will be protracted because the stakes are so high and the arguments are so novel. A ruling that Division I intercollegiate athletes are employees could potentially entitle them to additional protections under other employment laws, such as worker’s compensation, employment discrimination laws, collective bargaining laws, or Social Security requirements, to name a few. For colleges and universities, determining which laws may apply, and whether a particular issue involves the athlete’s status as a student or as an employee, could be complicated. The application of laws affecting intercollegiate athletics has changed dramatically in just a few years, and it is quite likely that more change will come. 

For any questions on how this information may affect your institution, please contact Barbara A. Lee, any attorney in Bond’s higher education practice or the Bond attorney with whom you regularly work.

[1] Alston v. NCAA, 141 S. Ct. 2141 (2021).

[2] NLRB, Statutory Rights of Players at Academic Institutions (Student-Athletes) under the National Labor Relations Act, General Counsel Memorandum 21-08, September 29, 2021.

[3] On February 5, 2024, a NLRB Regional Director ruled that the players on Dartmouth College’s varsity basketball team were employees under the NLRA’s definition, and ordered the College to bargain with the union representing these players. Trustees of Dartmouth College, Case No. 01-RC-325633 (February 5, 2024). The players voted to be represented by a union later that spring.

[4] Kristi Dosh, “10 Things to Know about the NCAA’s House Settlement,” Forbes, May 24, 2024, available at

[5] Johnson v. NCAA, 2024 U.S. App. LEXIS 16953 (3d Cir. July 11, 2024).

[6] Johnson v. NCAA, 556 F. Supp. 3d 491 (E.D. Pa. 2021).

[7] U.S. Department of Labor. Fact Sheet #71: Internship Programs Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, January 2018.

[8] 811 F.3d 528 (2d Cir. 2016).

[9] 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 246324 (December 28, 2021). An interlocutory appeal is an appeal of a ruling that is not final; its purpose is to resolve an unresolved matter of law prior to a ruling on the merits of a case.

[10] Although all three judges supported the outcome of the case, one judge, in a concurring opinion, stated that he disagreed with the reasoning of the case, but not its outcome.

[11] Johnson v. NCAA, 2024 U.S. App. LEXIS 26953 at *30.

[12]  Id.

Another Title VI Agreement and Another Insight Into OCR’s Enforcement Agenda

July 11, 2024

By Seth F. Gilbertson

On July 8, 2024, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced that it had reached a resolution agreement with Brown University. This action followed an investigation concluding that Brown University had failed to comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 regarding 75 reported antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents between October 2023 and March 2024 despite the University’s “notable proactive steps to support a nondiscriminatory campus environment, including updating its relevant policies and procedures in February 2024.”

Title VI Requirements and OCR Findings

Title VI mandates that institutions receiving federal funding must protect students from discrimination based on race, national origin, or shared ancestry. Colleges and Universities are required to take measures to end, eliminate, and prevent discrimination and harassment upon receiving reports. Recently, OCR has asserted that compliance with Title VI requires a more vigorous and methodical approach and many institutions previously employed.

In an outcome letter accompanying the resolution agreement, OCR expressed concerns highlighting what it described as the University’s inadequate response to some discriminatory incidents. Specifically, OCR concluded that offices involved in handling complaints had inconsistent responses and that some responsive processes were terminated if a reporting party did not reply to an initial outreach email. OCR found that this was inconsistent with the University’s obligation to assess whether a hostile environment exists independently of a complainant’s continued involvement.

Furthermore, despite commending Brown’s efforts, OCR criticized the revised policies and procedures for their lack of clarity in addressing and resolving antisemitic or other ancestry-based discrimination. OCR also questioned whether the University had reassessed Fall 2023 reports of antisemitism and other shared ancestry discrimination predating the policy revisions to determine whether further actions were required to comply with Title VI.

Resolution Agreement and Action Items

The University and OCR agreed on a Resolution Agreement outlining five “Action Items”:

Policy Revisions: The University must further revise its policies and procedures to enhance and ensure consistency in responses to discrimination allegations and clearly communicate these responses to students and faculty.

Annual Training: Brown will conduct annual nondiscrimination training for all employees and students. This training will include a specific section addressing discrimination and harassment based on national origin, with concrete examples.

Detailed Recordkeeping: The University is required to maintain detailed records of all complaints alleging discrimination, including harassment based on national origin.

Review: The University will conduct a review of its response to complaints and reports of antisemitic and other shared ancestry discrimination during the 2023–2024 and 2024–2025 academic years, and take remedial actions if required.

Climate Assessment and Action: Brown will analyze the results of any Title VI assessments conducted and, by the end of the Fall 2024 semester, identify and implement actions to improve the overall campus climate.

Readers who have been following OCR’s recent Title VI enforcement actions will find all of these requirements familiar and all institutions should consider implementing similar measures in order to reduce risk and bolster Title VI compliance. 


The resolution with Brown University is the fourth such agreement OCR has reached regarding allegations of shared ancestry violations of Title VI since the onset of the Israel-Hamas conflict. Similar complaints have led to OCR resolutions with City University of New York, University of Michigan, and Lafayette College. These agreements, alongside recent OCR guidance—including a Dear Colleague Letter and Fact Sheet—underscore OCR’s amplified commitment to enforcing Title VI compliance.

Educational institutions should take note of the detailed requirements outlined in these settlements, including robust complaint response, comprehensive training, meticulous recordkeeping, and proactive climate assessments.

For any questions on how this information may affect your institution, please contact Seth Gilbertson, any attorney in Bond’s higher education practice or the Bond attorney with whom you regularly work.

*Special thanks to Summer Law Clerk Grant Haffenden for his assistance in the preparation of this memo.

OCR Adds New Fact Sheet to Growing Library of Title VI Guidance

July 3, 2024

By Seth F. Gilbertson

On July 2, 2024, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released a new Fact Sheet. This document aims to help faculty, staff, students and families understand their rights and obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin, including shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics. Nearly all public elementary and secondary schools, as well as public and most private colleges and universities (IHE), are subject to Title VI due to their acceptance of federal financial assistance, such as federal financial aid.

Harassing Conduct and Hostile Environments

OCR determines that a hostile environment exists when harassing conduct is both subjectively and objectively offensive, and so severe and pervasive that it limits or denies a person’s ability to participate in or benefit from the recipient’s education program or activity. Harassing conduct can include verbal abuse, physical assault, graphic or written statements, or other conduct that is threatening, harmful or humiliating. Such conduct can occur in various places beyond the classroom, including residence halls, athletic fields, locker rooms or online.

Establishing a Title VI Violation

For a Title VI violation to be established, OCR must find that:

  1. A hostile environment based on race, color or national origin existed.
  2. The IHE had actual or constructive knowledge (knew or should have known) of the hostile environment. IHE officials can become aware of harassing conduct through formal complaints, observations by employees, or awareness shared by community members or the media.
  3. The IHE failed to take prompt, effective, and reasonably calculated steps to end the harassment, eliminate the hostile environment and its effects, and prevent recurring harassment. OCR assesses the reasonableness, timeliness, and effectiveness of a IHE’s response, emphasizing that an appropriate response must fully address the specific problems caused by the harassment.

Examples of Harassing Conduct

OCR provides additional hypothetical examples[1] of situations where an investigation could be initiated for IHE receiving federal financial assistance:

  1. Students repeatedly using racial slurs, mocking Black power, and creating the "Kool Kids Klub" (KKK) with a displayed confederate flag. The IHE, after interviewing the students involved, takes no further steps and advises the reporting students that there is no concern.
  2. A Lebanese student files a harassment complaint alleging discriminatory treatment in a clinical placement. The IHE does not investigate, claiming it is out of their hands since the incidents occurred at the clinic.
  3. An indigenous student on a football team is mocked as "the Redskin" with videos posted involving a fake ritualistic Native chant. The student informs the principal, but the only action taken is a warning to the football coach to control his players.


The Fact Sheet clarifies for IHE officials what constitutes harassing conduct and how the OCR assesses Title VI violations. It is crucial for IHE officials to take appropriate steps when aware of harassing conduct, either through formal complaints or other means. Failure to act can lead to further OCR involvement and potentially result in the loss of financial assistance from the Department of Education.

For any questions on how this information may affect your institution, please contact any attorney in Bond’s higher education practice or the Bond attorney with whom you regularly work.

*Special thanks to Summer Law Clerk Grant Haffenden for his assistance in the preparation of this memo. 

[1] The Department released a Dear Colleague Letter in May 2024 that also contains hypothetical examples.

OCR Resolves Title VI Complaints Against Two High-Profile Universities

June 18, 2024

By Seth F. Gilbertson

Recent resolution agreements between the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the University of Michigan (U-M) and the City University of New York (CUNY) offer valuable lessons for colleges and universities nationwide. These agreements, addressing complaints of discrimination based on shared Jewish, Israeli, Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, and/or South Asian ancestry and/or the association with these national origins/ancestries, reflect OCR’s evolving standards for compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Higher education institutions should heed these lessons to avoid and/or neutralize regulatory scrutiny.

Read More >> OCR Resolves Title VI Complaints Against Two High-Profile Universities

SDNY Dismisses Challenge to NYU’s Law Review Membership Selection Process

June 6, 2024

By Seth F. Gilbertson

On May 30, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York granted New York University’s (NYU) motion to dismiss in a lawsuit[1] from a first-year law student claiming that NYU School of Law’s process for selecting students to serve as editors of its Law Review gives preference to women and minorities in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The complaint was dismissed without prejudice on two grounds: 1) lack of subject-matter jurisdiction; and 2) failure to state a claim. This lawsuit is the first legal challenge to a law review diversity policy following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College (SFFA), 600 U.S. 181 (2023), which struck down race-based admission processes at colleges and universities.

Factual Background

The complaint filed in October 2023 notes that prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in SFFA, the NYU Law Review would invite 50 students from the rising second-year class to join the academic journal as editors. Twelve of the 50 spots were filled by the Law Review’s Diversity Committee, which required applicants to submit personal statements and gave them the option to submit resumes. The Diversity Committee selected students in consideration of factors that included (but were not limited to) the applicant’s “race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, socio-economic background, ideological viewpoint, disability, and age.”

According to the plaintiff, a student identified as “John Doe,” NYU Law Review changed its website after the SFFA decision by removing any explicit reference to diversity in the membership-selection process, but it is clear “that ‘diversity’ remains a prime consideration in the selection of members.” Doe alleges that the Law Review currently requires applicants to submit a “statement of interest” for consideration by the academic journal’s Selection Committee and gives students the option to also submit a resume.

Doe claims that as a heterosexual white male, the application process will subject him to race and sex discrimination and deny him “an equal opportunity to compete for membership” when he applies for Law Review in the summer of 2024. Specifically, Doe asserts that the Law Review uses statements of interest and resumes to “give preferential treatment to women, non-Asian racial minorities, homosexuals, and transgender people when selecting its members.”

The Court’s Reasoning

First, U.S. District Judge Vernon S. Broderick determined that Doe lacked the necessary standing to bring his lawsuit. The court explained that Doe’s allegations concerning what information students may share with the Law Review in their applications or how that information may be used are speculative and cannot confer standing upon Doe. The court further stated that the complaint is “devoid of any factual support” for Doe’s arguments, as it “does not plead, in other than a conclusory way, how the Law Review is discriminating now or will discriminate in the future.” Doe’s failure to plead factual allegations of a discriminatory selection process implemented by the Law Review established no injury-in-fact, and therefore no basis for standing or the court’s exercise of subject-matter jurisdiction over the case.

Even if Doe had standing to bring his suit, the court held that the complaint would still be dismissed for failure to state a claim under Title VI and Title IX because Doe’s claim lacked “facts supporting his allegation that NYU is giving and intends to give preferential treatment to certain minority groups.” The court added that the Law Review’s commitment to diversity pre-SFFA, and even post-SFFA, is not unlawful:

"Considering the lack of any language in the selection policy demonstrating a preference for students of a protected class and the absence of any allegations supporting the inference that the selection policy would result in preferential treatment of such students, I cannot conclude that the Law Review’s continued commitment to diversity gives rise to a plausible inference of unlawful conduct."

In effect, this SDNY opinion reinforces the holding in the Supreme Court’s decision in SFFA to expressly acknowledge that universities may consider an individual’s lived experiences or socio-economic challenges in its admission processes, as long as it does not do so based on race or any other protected characteristic alone.

As of the date of this memo, it is unclear whether this case will be appealed to a higher court. Bond will continue to closely monitor this and related affirmative action cases for updates and bring them to you in a timely manner.

If you have any questions about the implications this case may have for your institution, please contact any attorney in Bond’s higher education practice or the attorney at the firm with whom you are in regular contact.

*Special thanks to Associate Trainee Camisha Parkins for her assistance in the preparation of this memo. Camisha is not yet admitted to practice law.

[1] John Doe v. New York University, 1:23CV10515-VSB-SN (S.D.N.Y. 2023).

New Submission Details for Articles 129-A and 129-B Decennial Reporting

May 15, 2024

By Seth F. Gilbertson

We previously reported here that institutions of higher education (IHE) located in New York State are required to submit a copy of all written rules and procedures necessary to demonstrate compliance with Article 129-A and Article 129-B of the New York State Education Law to the New York State Education Department (NYSED or Department) for review. As promised, NYSED has provided more detailed information on how to submit these materials. All materials must be submitted by July 1, 2024.

Read More >> New Submission Details for Articles 129-A and 129-B Decennial Reporting

Here We Go: ED Releases Reworked Title IX Regulations

April 19, 2024

By Seth F. Gilbertson

After an extensive period of public commentary and deliberation, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) announced significant updates to its Title IX regulations on April 18, 2023. The changes are largely designed to overhaul how institutions of higher education (IHE) consider and address cases of sexual harassment, sexual assault, LGBTQI+ discrimination, and other forms of sex-based mistreatment, with the goal of ensuring gender equity in education.

Read More >> Here We Go: ED Releases Reworked Title IX Regulations

The Fifth Circuit Extends Injunction of the Biden Administration’s Borrower Defense to Repayment Rules

April 12, 2024

By Seth F. Gilbertson and Alison K. Roach

In a decision affecting the ever-shifting legal and regulatory dynamics of Borrower Defense to Repayment (BDR) claims, the Fifth Circuit postponed the effective date of a Biden administration plan to expand student debt relief to more borrowers who claim they were misled by institutions of higher education (IHE).

Read More >> The Fifth Circuit Extends Injunction of the Biden Administration’s Borrower Defense to Repayment Rules

Financial Value Transparency and Gainful Employment Regulations: What We Know Now

April 11, 2024

By Seth F. Gilbertson

The U.S. Department of Education’s recent Financial Value Transparency and Gainful Employment (FVT/GE) rules reflect an attempt to focus the federal regulatory apparatus on financial accountability and transparency. Slated for implementation on July 1, 2024, these regulations aim to enhance the informational paradigm available to students and their families regarding the financial aspects and potential outcomes of educational programs. This initiative, announced on October 10, 2023, signifies a comprehensive effort to enhance decision-making processes and protect the financial interests of both students and the U.S. fisc that underwrites the student financial aid system.

Read More >> Financial Value Transparency and Gainful Employment Regulations: What We Know Now