Former Trojan Lamar Dawson sues NCAA over wages

A former USC football player is in the midst of a legal battle that could force the NCAA to rethink the way it compensates student athletes.

Lamar Dawson, a linebacker for USC from 2011 to 2015, filed a class-action lawsuit against the Pac-12 and the NCAA last Monday for violating state and federal wage laws. In doing so, he is attempting to redefine the relationship between college athletes and their schools into that of employees and employers.

According to Mark Rifkin, one of the three lawyers representing Dawson, the class-action lawsuit takes a narrow focus in discussing wage compensation for collegiate athletes. The suit is not suggesting that all athletes deserve wage compensation. Instead, it suggests that certain groups of athletes are treated differently by their colleges, leagues and by the NCAA based on the revenue they produce, and thus should be compensated differently.

“We think that there is something special about the relationship between the players and the leagues in the NCAA,” Rifkin said. “These are big time, big revenue, big business college sports. I think there’s a clear difference between a big sport like football and a non-revenue generating sport like women’s track and field. A big revenue sport like college football or basketball, it’s more business than anything.”

The NCAA is disputing the complaint’s premise, arguing that college athletes put academics before athletics — regardless of the success of their program.

“[We] strongly disagree with the notion that college students participating in athletics are employees,” Donald Remy, the organization’s chief legal officer, said in a statement. “Our experience is that these college students, like their non-athlete colleagues, are very focused on their academic endeavors. Moreover, they have a passion for their sport and a commitment to their teammates that can’t be equated to punching a time clock.”

However, in situations such as Dawson’s time in the USC football program, Rifkin believes that athletes are treated as employees rather than as students. It makes sense, Rifkin said, that when football programs have millions of dollars at stake, they treat the athletes generating that revenue in a much different light.

For instance, USC made $59 million in revenue from the football program last year, according to USA Today. That revenue-generating machine is supported by 106 college students who spend hours in practices, fitness sessions and meetings every week. Dawson’s argument is that the football players creating this revenue stream should be appropriately compensated in accordance with both state and federal wage legislation.

“It doesn’t seem fair in some ways,” said Kelly Crabb, a USC law lecturer who specializes in sports, entertainment and media law as a partner at Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton, LLP. “The fans aren’t showing up to see the faculty play, or the administration or the trustees or the board of education. They’re showing up to watch these phenomenal athletes play and that’s the system. So the question naturally rises of why these athletes aren’t being compensated.”

Crabb understands the stance Rifkin and Dawson have taken, but he argues that the judge should carefully consider what the relationship should be between these athletes and their schools. Though college football and basketball programs have become a major industry, the players involved are first and foremost students who are mainly in college to pursue a future that won’t include athletics. And many of these athletes are compensated in their own way, receiving a partial or full scholarship and a degree.

According to the NCAA, 12.2 percent of college basketball players make it to the NBA, and just under 2 percent of college football players go professional. That means that the vast majority of collegiate athletes dedicate four years to their school and then pursue another career. For Crabb, this is an important distinction.

“There’s a bunch of people who say look, I work 40-hour weeks, I work overtime, I look like an employee, I walk like an employee, I talk like an employee, I must be an employee,” Crabb said. “I find that argument compelling on some points, but I also think it’s important that these people came to college to get an education, and [athletics] was a way to get some financial support. That’s the focus.”

His main concern is that a broad ruling in Dawson’s favor could create a precedent for paying all collegiate athletes, including those in other sports that don’t generate anywhere close to the same revenue. This could fundamentally change the way that college athletics programs approach funding and recruiting.

This is why Dawson’s suit is specific in the wage compensation issues that it raises. Rather than attack an overall lack of wages for all collegiate athletes, it singles out those athletes who create significant revenue for the University. By state definitions, Rifkin argues, these athletes are employees and must be treated as such, and this argument stands as the backbone of the suit.

But even with this specific verbiage, Crabb fears that a ruling in Dawson’s favor could harm other athletic programs, especially women’s programs that don’t enjoy the same support or exposure as men’s programs. Traditionally, the revenue a school receives from their football and men’s basketball teams props up their women’s teams and less popular men’s teams. The same money also goes into renovations on athletic facilities, creating improvements that benefit all athletes.

If this revenue was rerouted into wages for football and basketball players, Crabb believes that other athletes would see a drop in funding and attention from their school. And by providing wages as supplements to scholarships, colleges could potentially sidestep Title IX restrictions and provide greater compensation to male athletes than female athletes. Due to these concerns, Crabb is unsure that this case will make it very far.

Dawson’s suit is just another chapter in the debate of whether or not to pay collegiate athletes, an old fight that the NCAA is used to winning. Just this Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the similar class-action lawsuit of former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, who sued the NCAA for violating anti-trust laws.

O’Bannon’s case paralleled a 2014 court case which ruled that the NCAA can’t use the names, images or likenesses of a college athlete without fair compensation. And in that same year, the Northwestern football team submitted a petition to the National Labor Relations Board to receive representation from a labor union. That request was declined by the board, which refused to offer a position either way and effectively punted the issue rather than face it head on.

These cases reflect a back-and-forth battle between NCAA athletes and their governing body that has riddled college athletics for the last decade. Each case takes a different angle at compensation, which is why Dawson’s narrow angle is unique. By restricting its wording, Rifkin believes the suit provides an economically sound argument for paying a minor percentage of athletes producing a major percentage of NCAA revenue.

Ultimately, the case will have to be decided by a judge in due time. But Rifkin believes that the stance taken by his team will find success.

“All we want to see is that for the participants in big time college football programs, their compensation [will] comply with the laws in place,” Rifkin said. “I think it’s common sense.”