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Sports Law

Amateur Athletes

A common misconception about amateurs and professionals is that professionals are paid to play sports whereas amateur athletes are not. Amateur athletes often receive some compensation for their efforts. In ancient Greece, for example, victorious athletes in the Olympics were handsomely rewarded for their efforts. As of the early 2000s many college athletes receive academic scholarships for playing on a college team. Remuneration for amateur athletes is even promoted with federal legislation. The Amateur Sports Act of 1978 (36 U.S.C.A. § 391) created the Athletic Congress, a national governing body for amateur athletes, which administers a trust fund that allows amateur athletes to receive funds and sponsorship payments without losing their amateur status.

The most basic difference between amateur athletic events and professional events lies in their rewards for participation. Amateur events, by definition, do not reward victors with a prize of great value. Professional events, by contrast, reward participants and victors with money and/or other prizes. An accomplished athlete may choose to compete as an amateur if her sport does not have a thriving professional organization. Some athletes can make a living in amateur sports because victories in high-profile amateur events can lead to advertising deals and other business opportunities.

Amateur sports can be divided into two categories: restricted and unrestricted competition. Restricted competition includes elementary school, high school, and college athletics. Sports on these levels are controlled by athletic conferences, associations, and leagues connected to schools and colleges. Athletes in restricted competition must be eligible to play. Eligibility is determined by conferences, associations, and leagues formed by the schools.

Unrestricted competition is open to all amateur athletes, with some qualifications. The Olympics is an example of unrestricted competition. Although only a select few amateur athletes are chosen to represent the United States, any person may seek entry into this elite group by entering recognized contests in the years before the Olympiad and qualifying for tryouts.

Whether an athlete is eligible to compete in amateur events depends on the rules of the governing conference, league, or association. Many events formerly reserved for amateurs, such as the Olympics, were opened to professionals in the 1980s and 1990s. Gymnasts, figure skaters, soccer players, track stars, and other athletes once concerned with maintaining amateur status now may enjoy the fruits of professional competitions without losing access to prestigious amateur events. Often difficult eligibility issues for amateur athletes do not concern professional status. Qualification requirements for particular events and rules prohibiting drug use are among the more challenging roadblocks.

Black Sox Scandal (1919 )

The 1919 Black Sox scandal is the most famous example of athletes conspiring with gamblers to fix the outcome of a sporting event. Eight members of the Chicago White Sox were charged with taking bribes to lose the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. The most prominent player charged was "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, the star outfielder for the White Sox. It was alleged that the players received $70,000 to $100,000 for losing the World Series five games to three.

During the World Series, a number of sportswriters suspected that White Sox players were throwing the games. The writers published their charges after the series ended, but by the beginning of the 1920 BASEBALL season, it appeared nothing would come of the allegations. However, a federal GRAND JURY, presided by Judge KENESAW MOUNTAIN LANDIS, was impaneled in September 1920. Within days, four of the players, including Jackson, admitted that they had taken bribes to lose games in the 1919 series. The eight players were indicted.

The team suspended the players, and they went on trial in the summer of 1921. They were acquitted on insufficient evidence, under suspicious circumstances. Key pieces of evidence were missing from the grand jury files, including the players' confessions. No gamblers were ever brought to trial for BRIBERY, though it was alleged that New York RACKETEER Arnold Rothstein was behind the plan to fix the World Series.

Major league baseball had named Landis commissioner of baseball in 1921, in an attempt to restore the integrity of the game. The day after the eight White Sox players were acquitted, Landis banned them from baseball for life.


Asinof, Eliot. 1987. Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series. New York: H. Holt.

Cook, William A. 2001. The 1919 World Series: What Really Happened? Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland.

Nathan, Daniel A. 2003. Saying It's So: A Cultural History of the Black Sox Scandal. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.


Landis, Kenesaw Mountain.

Eligibility requirements for amateur athletes are many and varied. Generally, amateur athletes do not have an absolute right to participate in sports events. In analyzing whether an athlete is eligible to participate, a court must first decide whether the individual has a right to play, as opposed to a mere privilege to play. Privileges can be revoked by the grantor of the privilege. If the individual has a right to participate, the court examines the individual's relationship with the institution denying access. If the institution is private, the dispute generally is decided according to contract or tort principles. If the institution is a public school or university, or any other publicly funded organization, courts change their analysis.

When public funds are involved, the institution is deemed a state actor, and the institution's action is subject to the DUE PROCESS and EQUAL PROTECTION Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. Due process usually consists of notice to the person affected by the STATE ACTION and an opportunity for the aggrieved person to argue against the action. Courts also strike down vague, overbroad, and overly restrictive regulations by state institutions on due process grounds.

The Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause, as interpreted by courts, requires that similarly situated persons receive equal treatment under the law. If a classification touches on a fundamental right, such as freedom of religion or the right to marry, or if it is based on a suspect criterion, such as race or national origin, a court will strictly scrutinize the classification to see whether it promotes a compelling interest of the institution. Because participation of amateurs in sports is not a fundamental right, ordinarily the exclusion of amateurs from participation is not subjected to STRICT SCRUTINY.

If a regulation of amateur sports does not infringe on a fundamental right or burden a suspect class, courts determine whether the regulation bears a rational relationship to a legitimate STATE INTEREST. This is a lower level of inquiry than strict scrutiny, but it does not give public institutions the unlimited freedom to act unreasonably in the absence of fundamental rights or suspect class concerns. In 1981 the Texas Supreme Court struck down the state high school athletic association's non-transfer rule, which declared all non-seniors ineligible for varsity football and basketball competition for one year following their transfer to a new school. The purpose of the act was to discourage the recruiting of student athletes. According to the court, the rule was over-inclusive because it presumed that a student athlete who had switched schools had been recruited and did not give the student the opportunity to rebut the presumption (Sullivan v. University Interscholastic League, 616 S.W.2d 170 [1981]).

The rights of student athletes can be infringed by reasonable measures that are implemented for sound public policy reasons. Eligibility criteria can vary from school to school, and even from sport to sport. No pass-no play rules, or rules that keep flunking students off school teams, are permissible in light of the government's overriding interest in educating children. Schools may artificially control the number of student athletes, allowing students to be cut from popular sports to keep athlete-to-coach ratios at manageable levels.

Schools may enact other limitations, such as rules limiting the number of sports a student can play at one time and rules authorizing students to be suspended or expelled from athletics for consuming alcohol or using other drugs. Discovery of student-athlete drug use was made easier under a 1995 U.S. Supreme Court decision. In Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646, 115 S. Ct. 2386, 132 L. Ed. 2d 564 (1995), the Court held that random drug testing of student athletes does not violate the constitutional right to be free from unreasonable SEARCHES AND SEIZURES.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is the most important administrative body governing sports on the college level. Many COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES are members of the NCAA, and they give the association the authority to exercise control over their student-athletes, coaches, and other athletic operatives. The NCAA, headquartered in Shawnee, Kansas, arranges for television and radio contracts and performs other functions to promote the wellbeing of college sports.

The NCAA exerts a tremendous amount of control over its members. Under NCAA rules, college athletes must meet and maintain a certain grade-point average before playing, may not hire an agent while playing for a college, and may not participate in an annual professional draft of college athletes without losing their eligibility. The NCAA may discipline coaches and scouts for violating restrictions on the recruiting of high school athletes. Athletes may be suspended or banned from a team for alcohol and other drug use. Each team has its own set of rules that complement the NCAA rules.

Most courts hold that participation in intercollegiate athletics is not a constitutionally protected interest. However, one federal district court has recognized a student athlete's limited property interest in college athletics. In Hall v. University of Minnesota, 530 F. Supp. 104 (1982), University of Minnesota basketball guard Mark Hall, who had a satisfactory grade-point average, was kept off the basketball team when he failed to earn enough credits for a particular academic program. Hall appealed the decision, arguing that his application to a different college within the university had been rejected in bad faith and without due process. U.S. District Court Judge Miles W. Lord held that Hall had a sufficient property interest in playing basketball because the competition would affect his ability to be drafted by a professional team, and Lord ordered the school to let Hall play.

College athletic scholarships are unusual agreements that can pose problems for schools, athletes, and courts. A typical athletic scholarship requires the athlete to maintain certain grade levels and to perform as an athlete for the school in exchange for tuition, books, and other educational expenses. Most courts treat scholarships as contracts, with obligations and rights assigned to both parties. One party may be liable to the other if a breach of the contract occurs. For instance, a college may revoke the scholarship of an athlete who fails to maintain good grades or violates any other condition of the scholarship. A school, for its part, may violate its obligations by failing to provide an education to a student athlete. At least one court has held that a school violates its duties under an athletic scholarship if it fails to provide a student athlete meaningful access to its academic curriculum (Ross v. Creighton University, 957 F.2d 410 [7th Cir. 1992]).

The revenues produced by some college sports have made college athletics a multimillion-dollar entertainment industry. Although student-athletes are an integral part of the entertainment, most contemporary courts do not view them as employees of their schools. Thus, a school is not liable under workers' compensation statutes to a student-athlete if the student-athlete is injured in an accident related to the student's sport. For tax purposes, most courts examine the scholarship agreements of most students to determine whether they bargained for the scholarship money. If the students bargained for the scholarship money in return for services, the money can be taxed. Under INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE regulations and revenue rulings, scholarship funds for student-athletes are exempt from federal tax if the college does not require the student to participate in a particular sport, requires no particular activity in lieu of participation, and does not cancel the scholarship if the student cannot participate. Funds for such athletic scholarships may be taxed if they exceed the expenses for tuition, fees, room, board, and necessary supplies. As of 1996, the Internal Revenue Service had never challenged the tax-exempt status of student-athletes on scholarship.

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