Employment Law Issues in Sports

Employment law issues in sports result in some of the most prominent discussions of employee rights and employer obligations in American life. Sexual harassment, workplace investigations, and vaccine mandates (a key issue in the NBA this year) are common discussion points in workplaces, whether your job is televised nationally or not. Today, The Noble Law wants to share a general overview of some employment issues we’ve observed in the world of sports recently.

Baseball: Negotiations between the Major League Baseball Players Association and the owners of the 30 MLB teams over the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) dominated the sports headlines. The CBA determines things like how revenue is split between teams and players, the rules of the sport (like the universal designated hitter), and minimum player salaries.  

Baseball has some of the strictest contract guidelines in the sport, as players are only true “free agents” after they have played seven years in the major leagues. Players alleged collusion between team owners where service time was manipulated to delay player free agency, followed by reduced contract offers to  older players when they finally reached free agency. After a lockout, the CBA was signed, but it appears likely to be a temporary lid on the bubbling long-term issues beneath the surface.

Another key debate going on in the world of baseball is the way the sport handles its extensive minor league infrastructure. While we may imagine the life of a pro athlete to be glamorous, many minor league baseball players need to get a second job in the offseason to make ends meet and find themselves couch-hopping to save on rent in-season. Most of these ballplayers will never see a major-league contract. What is the employer’s obligation to provide a living wage, and should salaries reflect the modern reality that training to be a professional athlete is a full-time job?

Hockey: The Kyle Beach story is horrific, and a reminder of the remarkable efforts sports organizations will make to protect their reputation at the cost of individuals. Beach was only 20 years old when he reached the NHL as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks. He was also only 20 years old when he was pressured into sexual contact with a coach on the team and had his career prospects threatened if he didn’t comply.

Beach reported this incident, and team executives investigated, then had a meeting two weeks after the initial report. Executives on the Blackhawks determined that they wanted to avoid negative publicity while the team made their playoff run to the Stanley Cup Finals. The involved coach continued to participate in team activities throughout the playoffs. When the team won the Stanley Cup, he was allowed to celebrate with the team and has his name engraved on the Cup along with the rest of the Blackhawks organization. Two days after the season ended, HR met with him and offered him severance to resign.

With the incident never becoming public, the coach moved on and worked for USA Hockey and multiple collegiate hockey programs. According to CNN, while working at Houghton High School in 2013, he was arrested and pled guilty to sexual contact with a minor. The Blackhawks did not address the issue until 2021.

Soccer: As we’ve previously covered in this space, players and former players on the U.S. Women’s National Team settled a lawsuit over equal pay disputes with the U.S. Soccer Federation in 2022. The settlement included an agreement to equalize pay between men and women.

The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) is the largest women’s soccer league in the United States. It was rocked late last year by a reported story in The Athletic, where two players accused their former coach, Paul Riley, of sexual coercion and harassment. The players had reported the behavior to their team and the NWSL, and Riley’s contract was allowed to expire. However, less than half a year later, Riley was hired to coach another NWSL team. When this story broke, the NWSL commissioner resigned, and Riley was terminated as the head coach of the NC Courage.

As managing partner and founder of The Noble Law Laura Noble noted at the time, “in sports leagues in particular, you have sort of a perfect environment [for] a sexual harasser or abuser…when you have a prominent male coach who is protected by the organization, and then you have women who are much lower paid.”

The NWSL continues to deal with the fallout from this incident, as other abuses of power on other teams have been revealed in the months following the Riley incident.

College Sports: We recently covered the ramifications of the NCAA allowing for student-athletes to monetize their Name, Image, and Likeness to earn compensation while playing for colleges and universities. Within the last week, the NCAA released additional guidelines to try to govern the “wild, wild west” that has developed instantaneously. Read this article for more on the new guidelines.

It’s clear that employment law issues in sports are going to continue in the years to come. For more articles on the world of employment law, check out our blog archive! If you or someone you know is dealing with an employment law issue, reach out to our team here. We have offices in New York, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

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