When people think about employees and contractors, they often imagine people working in retail, driving an Uber or sitting in an office. However, being a professional athlete is also an occupation. And while it may seem like the dream job for many people, it can prove to be a nightmare for athletes facing legal challenges to protect and establish their rights.

For instance, athletes can struggle when it comes to contractual obligations and employment rights. One example is UFC fighter Leslie Smith and her efforts to unionize fighters.

Fighting a losing battle?

As discussed in this in-depth article from The Ringer, Smith reportedly wants to pursue better protections for professional fighters, including the right to unionize. She says her attempts to form a union have worked against her and led to early termination of her contract. She says the UFC released her from her contract following a canceled fight. And she says she is owed another fight; the UFC disagrees.

This case highlights a number of legal challenges that someone in any field of work can face, from contract disputes to claims of retaliation.

It also showcases the importance of properly identifying workers as either employees or contractors.

In California, for instance, the law identifies athletes as contractors or employees based on whether the sport they play is a team or individual sport.

As this article explains, people who play football, baseball and soccer are part of a team and have little or no independent control over how they compete. Athletes who box, golf, play tennis or auto race are generally independent contractors because they have far more control over their schedule and performances.

Notably, contractors do not have the right to unionize. 

Seeking justice as an athlete

The professional sports industry is complex and intimidating. It is not unusual for athletes to be unsure of their rights or scared to defend them, for fear of compromising their job and reputation.

However, being an athlete is a job. And like any job, it comes with various protections and restrictions. In cases where a person's rights and livelihood are threatened, it can take legal action to restore or defend them.

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