Amateur Athletes and Eligibility

by Gregory J. Tarone on Jan. 30, 2014

Business Other  Education Industry Specialties  Entertainment 

Summary: Much has been said and done in recent years about amateur status in sport. As a result, it is not all clear nor understandable. the paradox is that we expect a regulatory standard which varies from sport to sport, through age levels, across geographic boundaries...

Much has been said and done in recent years about amateur status in sport. As a result, it is not all clear nor understandable. the paradox is that we expect a regulatory standard which varies from sport to sport, through age levels, across geographic boundaries. The intent of this article is to indicate what we as lawyers can do to help amateur athletes preserve that status so that they may continue to compete and receive scholarship money for their education as well as to prospectively guide them through the planning of professional careers.  

International Competition

    Lawyers should know how and when to get involved.  Though Congress chartered the USOC in 1950, federal legislation did not coordinate amateur sports jurisdiction until the Amateur Sports Act of 1978 which allows amateur sports-other than collegiate, high school, and certain other closed organization sports groups - to be under the jurisdiction of the National Governing Bodies (NGB) while the USOC coordinates and promotes amateur athletics involving other nations with the United States.  Each NGB is vested with the power and responsibility of deciding who may compete in its respective sport.  The USOC, as overseer of non collegiate international amateur athletics must afford full procedural and substantive due process by its inherent obligation under its congressional charter.

    It has been said that the “international law is the law of the jungle” and the international sports federations can simply be characterized as a maze of organizations that even - or especially - courts cannot sort out.  Americans are left with different sources for determining, as an example, what affects eligibility.  Differences in political systems have their effects: communist countries have national centralized Olympic committees that decree the rules, while Americans have NGB’s that set their own standards from Colorado Springs to New York to Florida to Texas to Indianapolis and other places with the USOC coordinating all of them.  

    The Olympics was established for the sake of amateurs who could compete for love of the sport and not money. Though the International Olympic Committee dictates what athletes must do to be eligible to participate, when there is a question of non collegiate eligibility, one should inquire with both the USOC and the NGB.

Collegiate Competition

    Most publicity today is around collegiate athletes who lose their eligibility as a result of violating the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) rules. The NCAA is a private, voluntary membership organization, and , as such, any athletes participating in intercollegiate competition at its member institutions must abide by its rules to compete. Since it is a privilege and not a constitutionally protected right to play at such institutions, only applicable procedural due process is owed to an athlete.

The various leagues and conferences are also members of the NCAA, but act independently on behalf of their members; they must follow NCAA rules, but can make stricter rules and enforce them as well.  The Southeastern Conference (SEC) is an example of an NCAA member that has come rules that are stricter than NCAA basic rules, such as being the only conference to declare that any student who becomes a professional in one sport is a professional in all sports.  The NCAA and its member conferences have separate rules, so you must know each to their rules and how they apply before advising an athlete.  The way to handle an eligibility question is to first inquire with the legislative assistant at the NCAA and applicable member league or conference, if any, to be guided as to the posture of a client.

There is little need for the services of an attorney before accepting a college athletic grant-in-aid scholarship, because the letters of intent signed in accepting such a scholarship are basically the same.  There should never be any negotiation with an institution on an athlete’s behalf, such as counteroffer to a grant-in-aid scholarship letter of intent, since that would create a “professional” status and sacrifice amateur status.

There are several NCAA rules that all athletes should be aware of to preserve their eligibility to participate in NCAA competition. The athlete, or his or her parents cannot accept anything of value from a prospective agent or team or company - not clothing, dinner, nor even a soft drink. any gift or “extra benefit” offered to the athlete must be offered to all students as the respective institution.  A lawyer cannot give a student athlete preferential treatment, charging a fee less than his normal fee, or else the attorney becomes a booster and must comply with the applicable rules. If an SEC athlete receives “extra benefit” in one sport, as Bo Jackson found out when he accepted a plane ticket to visit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a physical exam, he loses his SEC eligibility to play intercollegiately in another SEC sport.  Though an athlete can talk with any agent and ask a team or league about draft-ability, he cannot agree to or enter into an oral or written contract of any nature.

Examples of mistakes by amateur athletes that make them professionals by NCAA rules are: a 14-year old tennis player accepting shoes from Reebok and a racket from Wilson; a football player appearing at a shopping mall pep rally, because there is a commercial enterprise promoted thereby; and, an athlete appearing at a McDonald’s restaurant to sign autographs for fans. An amateur cannot use his or her image for any commercially-connected enterprise. It should be noted, however, that loss of eligibility with the NCAA does not necessarily mean loss of eligibility with other collegiate governing bodies of the NGB’s

The problems found at the collegiate level are surely the most widespread, to a greater extent because of the athlete;s marketability in professional sports such as football, basketball, and baseball.  Though student athletes under NCAA regulations can receive permissible “actual and necessary expenses,” no extra benefit may be received.  it is sometimes difficult to know where you stand with the NCAA, such as in the case of University of Florida co-ed volleyball player who entered and won a wet T-shirt contest and received a trip to the Caribbean as an award, which the NCAA did not object to - on non-sexist grounds - because it had nothing to do with her athletic ability and every co-ed had the equal opportunity to win. The key, whether you are giving legal services or athletic equipment, is that all students must be offered the same. Amateur athletes, by NCAA rules, are not to be given preferential treatment.

An interesting problem is presented by a golf tournament with two-man amateur/professional teams, such as “scramble” play, in which the amateur receives an award, such as a plaque sanctioned by the NCAA, but the professional receives money. There is a question as to whether it would violate NCAA rules because the amateur helps the professional make money in a commercial enterprise.

Scholastic Competition

    When considering high school eligibility rules, there is the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFSHSA). The issues that are often presented concern transferability, age and academic requirements. Like the NCAA and SEC, the NFSHSA allows its state organization members to make more stringent rules.

    Though the NFSHSA rules apply only while an athlete is in high school, an interesting paradox can develop. The NFSHSA  does allow some “gifts” - not gold or silver- outside the school system, but acceptance of these gifts may violate NCAA and its member league of conference rules.  An example of a serious mishap is one golfer who won a New York tournament in which a car was awarded but not accepted, yet he was ruled ineligible to play in the NCAA competition because he competed for the award. Plaques and ribbons as competitive awards are exempt, but it is always best to check with the NCAA, league and conference ,and even the USOC and NGB, if applicable, before the athlete competes to assure that qualified gifts are involved.

Lawyers’ Role

The role of lawyers as advisers is clearly important. Though playing sports in high school and college is a privilege and not a constitutional right, lawyers are necessary to protect a player’s - and even a coach’s and institution's - interests. Our obligation is to discern what to do and not to within the regulatory framework of the respective sport and level of competition. Though it is the student-athletes’ responsibility to know the rules, attorneys are capable of helping amateur athletes avoid the pitfalls of the regulatory maze by applying our skills so that the athletes can enjoy the sports and the benefits of a grant-in-aid scholarship. Furthermore, if legal action is necessary and appropriate, it is essential that the lawyer research all the proper sources and investigate all possible solutions before filing suit.  Because of the ethical standards to which we are held, lawyer can be of particular help in planning and managing both a career in sports and a post-sports career.

The following is a list of references to help steer you in the appropriate source of information when representing an amateur athlete:

National Collegiate Athletic Association

Post Office Box 1906

Mission, Kansas 66201

(603) 384 - 3220

National Federation of State High School Associations

11724 Plaza Circle

Post Office Box 20626

Kansas City, Missouri 64195

National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics

1221 Baltimore Avenue

Kansas City, Missouri, 64105

(816) 842- 5050

National Junior College Athletic Association

Post Office Box 7305

Colorado Springs, Colorado 80933-7305

(303) 590-9788


Sports Law, George W. Schubert, Rodney K.

Smith, Jesse C. Trentadue (1986).

The Law of Sports, John C. Weistart and Cym H. Lowell (1985)

Law and Amateur Sports, Edited by Ronald J. Waicukauski (1982)

1987-88 Manual of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (1987)

NAIA Official Handbook (Revised 8/87)

National Junior College Athletic Association Handbook and Casebook 1987-88 (1987)

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