B.C. government off-side in changing the rules for amateur athletes?

By Rachel H Roy

As of three days ago, the Employment Standards Act no longer applies to players, entitled to scholarships, who play on major junior ice hockey teams in British Columbia. The Employment Standards Act contains protective provisions that set out minimum wages, maximum hours of work, overtime eligibility and so on.

Interestingly, there are currently two class action lawsuits pending in Alberta and Quebec against the Canadian Hockey League and its teams on  behalf of junior players alleging that the League conspired to force young players into signing contracts that breached minimum wage laws. The lead plaintiff is a  20 year old hockey player who, according to his T4 for the 2013 season, apparently received less than $8 an hour.

In relation to the class action lawsuits, the League claims that junior players are student athletes, or contractors, rather than employees. 

Now, in B.C., it won't matter whether or not junior players are characterized as employees or contractors as, in either case, if they are entitled to receive scholarships, the protective provisions of the Employment Standards Act won't apply to them.

This has been a hot button topic south of the border as well, with the Washington State Legislature circulating a bill last year that would classify Western Hockey League players as "non-employees". The bill that was passed exempts 16 to 21 year old junior ice hockey players from the definition of "employees".

At this rate, perhaps a spot on a major junior ice hockey team will end up joining the long list of unpaid internships legally permitted by provincial and federal governments across the country.

What do you think?

The scholarship aspect is also worth further consideration. 

Under the new regulation in B.C., if a player is entitled to receive a scholarship from a major junior ice hockey league or team in an amount that would cover one year of tuition fees, student fees and required text books at a B.C. public post-secondary institution, then they cannot claim an entitlement to minimum wages, maximum hours of work, overtime, etc.

In the U.S., where there is far more money flowing into college-level athletics than in Canada, there has been significant litigation focussed on finding the balance between the value of a scholarship versus fair compensation for work. Despite the fact that a typical scholarship in the U.S. would generally far surpass the cost of one year's attendance at a B.C. university, the tide nonetheless appears to be turning in favour of fair compensation, with the National Collegiate Athletic Association seeking reforms in this vein.

One compromise floated by the NCAA has been to require scholarships to cover the actual cost of post-secondary attendance, which is more than just tuition and fees, and includes room and board and transportation costs. This takes into account the fact that student athletes simply do not have the time between their school and athletics schedules to pick up shifts at a job that actually pays them money.

It remains to be seen how things will play out in Canada.