March 22, 2024

March Madness in the Illinois Legislature: Proposed Legislation Seeks to Make Illinois Student Athletes Eligible for Workers’ Compensation Benefits

March 22, 2024

Currently, the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act protects employees. House Bill 5625, introduced in the Illinois House of Representatives, would amend the Act to expand the definition of “employee” to include every student participant in an athletic program at an institution of higher education, but only when the student is participating in an athletic event, traveling to and from an athletic event, or an organized training activity. It also sets forth a method to calculate the average weekly wage of a student athlete.

Since 2021, college athletes have been able to sign deals with businesses and other entities to be compensated off their names, images, and likenesses (“NIL”). On June 29, 2021, Governor Pritzker signed into law SB 2338, which, among other things, included the creation of the Student-Athlete Endorsement Rights Act and set forth definitions, including “compensation”, “student-athlete”, and provisions concerning the conditions in which a student-athlete may and may not earn NIL compensation. Meanwhile, a Congressional House subcommittee is moving forward with its own bill that would create national rules to rein in NIL.

What neither Illinois has done, or Congress proposes to do, when considering the regulation (or de-regulation) of NIL, is to explicitly state a student-athlete is an “employee” of his or her “institution of higher learning.” The NCAA is pushing Congress to affirm that student athletes are NOT employees of an institution. Their concerns are not hypothetical either, as the 3rd Court of Appeals recently heard arguments in Johnson v. NCAA, where the court could determine whether student-athletes can be employees. The US Supreme Court will likely weigh in eventually.

So, what does this mean for Illinois? It means that while the higher courts try to decide whether a student-athlete is or is not an employee, with implications far beyond workers’ compensation claims, at least one Illinois lawmaker is trying to create an exception for student-athletes under the Act while stopping short of defining them as employees. The Illinois legislature may be inclined to take a “wait-and-see” approach, allowing high profile court cases and/or Congress to make the tough decision for them.

HB 5625 states “the average weekly wage shall be computed by taking the total scholarship awarded to the student athlete for his or her participation in an athletic program and all other grants and subsides awarded to him or her due to their participation in the athletic program in the current academic year, or if the athlete is not injured, during the prior academic year or the following academic year, whichever is greater, and dividing that total compensation by 52.” A student-athlete will still need to prove an injury arising out of and in the course of their employment. If passed, claims should be expected to accumulate quickly, as student-athlete injuries while competing or practicing are no rare occurrence. The underwriting involved with institutes of higher learning will see changes as well.

We will continue to provide updates if and when this proposed legislation becomes law in Illinois, or if a Federal law is passed. For any other questions, please contact any attorney at Wiedner & McAuliffe by e-mail or phone at 312-855-1105.