Athletes are bringing claims to assert their statutory employment rights in courts and employment tribunals, from Australia to the United States (and many places in between). Cases show a global trend of athletes taking action to protect their non-contractual rights and using the protections and benefits conferred on them by general employment laws.

The English Employment Tribunal, in a recent case brought by former professional basketball player Will Hall against British Basketball League club, the London Lions, said that “…[The Club’s] position was that although the Claimant was an employee he was not entitled to holiday as professional basketball players did not take holiday. Unfortunately for the Respondent this was not the legal position.[1] Ruling in favour of Hall on his claims for wrongful dismissal, holiday pay and other breaches of employment law, the Employment Tribunal’s message to sports teams, clubs (and federations) was clear – professional athletes can be employees, too, and as employers they need to play by the rules.

Many teams, clubs and federations (particularly those without sophisticated and well-resourced HR and legal departments) lack awareness of their employment law responsibilities and are ill-equipped to comply with their obligations. As the London Lions accepted in the Hall case, “[t]he area of employment rights… was not an area [the club] had great knowledge of…”.[2] Perhaps unsurprisingly, the club’s ambivalence to its obligations meant that Hall succeeded in all his claims before both the Employment Tribunal and the UK’s Employment Appeal Tribunal (the EAT)[3].

It is not only in the UK that athletes are taking action. While employment law varies across jurisdictions, cases throughout the world show both the common struggles athletes have in proving that they are workers or employees with employment law rights and protections in the first place, and also the high-profile way that disputes can play out (especially when involving allegations of discrimination, unequal pay and failure to pay statutory minimum wages).