Three referees who have worked with the NCAA for over a decade filed suit recently for age discrimination. They claim that, despite highly favorable evaluations, the number of games they have been assigned to officiate has dropped off. In fact, none has been assigned to the most lucrative games, those in Division I.
At least one of the men alleges that his supervisors actually said that he and the other older referees must make way for younger people. This appears to be the only explanation the refs received for the diminution of their assignments and livelihoods.
For example, one of the refs says that between 2010 and 2016 he reffed 196 games, but between 2017 and 2019 that number dropped to 78. His assignments dropped off in all three divisions, but he was assigned to no Division I games in the 2018-19 season.
Due to the drop off in assignments, the man says that his income fell from nearly $31,000 to only $13,000 and then to below $7,000 in the past two years.
Another referee says that he was assigned to referee 52 Division I games in the 2015-16 season but none at all in the 2019-20 season. His net income fell from $54,000 in 2015-16 to only $26,000 in 2018.
“The NCAA have made it clear that they favor young referees and that older experienced referees … will no longer receive the most lucrative assignments to Division I basketball games,” reads the complaint, which was filed in state court in New York.
Is it legal to discriminate against independent contractors?
According to the complaint, the NCAA and the collegiate conferences have publicly maintained that they are doing nothing wrong by reducing the assignments of older referees. This is because referees are independent contractors, not employees.
The question of whether it’s legal to discriminate against independent contractors is somewhat complex and depends in part on state law. However, this lawsuit alleges that the NCAA and collegiate conferences should not be allowed to discriminate because they exert sole and exclusive control over the selection of referees. The lawsuit also claims that the NCAA controls access to the opportunity to be hired as a collegiate ref at this level.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADA) generally does not apply to independent contractors. However, the status of any particular person as an independent contractor itself is a legal issue. If a worker is found to be legally an employee rather than a contractor, the worker would be covered by the ADA.
Workers experiencing discrimination should not hesitate to discuss their concerns with an experienced employment law attorney, even if they have been told they are independent contractors.