AuthorJeffrey Wilson

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The law governing amateur athletes is an amalgam of statutes, regulations, rules, procedures, and judicial decisions that apply to individual athletes, the academic institutions for which they compete, and most persons employed by those academic institutions. This body of law spans several areas of American jurisprudence, including tort law, tax law, antitrust law, and civil rights law, among others. Thus, the law governing amateur athletics is not a single body of law unto itself.

Amateur vs Professional Athletes

The most basic difference between amateur and professional athletes lies in the rewards that each group receives for athletic performances. Generally speaking, amateur athletes are not paid for their athletics performances, though the U.S. Gymnastics Association and the U.S. Figure Skating Association now allow member athletes to sponsor commercial products so long as the money earned is placed into trust. Professional athletes, by contrast, are typically paid annual salaries plus incentives tied to individual and team performance.

Athletic scholarships are the biggest reward offered to amateur athletes. Athletic scholarships pay for some or all of a student-athlete's tuition, including room and board, as long as the student-athlete remains enrolled at the school, continues to participate in the athletic program for which the scholarship was awarded, and maintains academic eligibility. Amateur athletes who are compensated for their performance in any way beyond their athletic scholarships can be stripped of their amateur status by National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) or other college athletic organizations.

High School Athletic Associations

Each state has established an athletic association that establishes rules and guidelines under which most schools in that state must adhere. These rules and guidelines cover topics such as, for example, the general eligibility of student athletes, including age restrictions; residency requirements; restrictions on supervised practices when a sport is not in session; policies related to broadcasting and sponsorship;

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and codes of conduct. These associations also set forth rules for individual sports.

Collegiate Athletic Associations

Headquartered in Shawnee, Kansas, the NCAA is the governing body that regulates athletic competitions among many colleges and universities. Colleges and universities must elect to join the NCAA, and once they do they relinquish ultimate jurisdiction over their athletic programs, student-athletes, and coaches. To remain a member of the association, colleges and universities have to abide by NCAA rules, regulations, and policies.

Pursuant to its governing authority, the NCAA has established criteria that college athletes must satisfy to stay eligible for NCAA sanctioned athletic competitions. One of these criteria is that student-athletes be in good academic standing and maintain a certain minimum grade-point average. Schools and coaches are subject to NCAA restrictions regulating how high school students may be recruited, while both coaches and athletes are subject to discipline for violating NCAA rules relating to use of illegal or banned substances, gambling, point-shaving, and bribery.

The NCAA conducts its own investigations of alleged rule violations and assesses penalties based on the severity of the violation, after giving the suspected offender an opportunity to be heard during a public proceeding in which most fundamental legal rights may be invoked. Penalties may be assessed against an offending school, coach, or athlete and entail loss of scholarships and loss of post-season awards, including fines, probation, suspensions, forfeiture of games, and forfeiture of tournament and playoff opportunities.

Schools with repeat offenses may receive particularly harsh punishment. For instance, the NCAA cancelled the entire 1987 football season for Southern Methodist University (SMU) after investigators found numerous rules violations related to the football team, including payments to players that amounted to more than $600,000. The so-called "death penalty" that the NCAA administered in the SMU case is the harshest punishment that the NCAA has ever administered, but it is indicative of the level of power that the NCAA holds over athletic programs.

Some schools, particularly smaller colleges, choose not to be members of the NCAA. More than 280 colleges belong to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), which is based in Olathe, Kansas. The NAIA sanctions more than a dozen sports for men and women. Two-year colleges, on the other hand, belong to the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA), based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Member schools of the NAIA and NJCAA are subject to similar rules as schools that are members of the NCAA.

Most colleges and universities also belong to athletic conferences. These conferences establish additional rules under which their members must operate. Athletic conferences also coordinate efforts to market their sports teams and provide for plans by which revenues from athletics are shared by member schools.

Professional Sports Associations

Professional sports teams in the National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Hockey League (NHL), and the National Basketball Association (NBA) are also governed by voluntary associations, but their associations are comprised of individual owners who purchase professional sports franchises and agree to abide by the rules, policies, and procedures established by the league. Also known as the constitution and by-laws, these rules, policies and procedures generally govern the circumstances under which franchises may move their team from one city to another; players may be drafted, sign contracts, become free agents, and receive retirement pensions; and...

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