Countless legal issues arise in the context of collegiate and professional sports, particularly related to labor law, antitrust law, tort law, and entertainment law. As professional sports became more popular and involved increasingly more complex business enterprises, a unique and independent field of sports law was developed in order to address these issues. Some of the key issues that are addressed by sports law attorneys include media relations and the negotiation of contracts with professional teams.
At the collegiate or amateur level, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA, regulates over 1,200 athletes. The NCAA is also tasked with developing and administering the athletic programs of numerous college and universities throughout the United States and provides assistance to over 450,000 college athletes competing in university-level sports. According to NCAA bylaws, universities seeking to recruit high school-level athletes must comply with strict contact requirements and can only solicit athletes’ interest at certain times and through certain means. Many universities try to bend these rules or exploit gray areas in their interpretation. This gives rise to frequent legal disputes between universities, high schools, athletes, and their parents.
Another important law applicable to collegiate level sports is Title IX. Passed in 1972, the act makes it illegal for any federally funded university to discriminate against students based on sex or gender. The policy goal of this legislation is to foster equality for women’s sports and to ensure that sufficient funding and support is dedicated to women’s athletic programs. The Office for Civil Rights administers Title IX, and it has developed a three-prong test to guide schools in developing their athletic programs and funding:
- Are the opportunities available to male and female athletes proportionate to their enrollment?
- Does the school have a history of providing expanded athletic opportunities for women?
- Does the school have a record of demonstrated success in meeting the needs of its students?
At the professional level, many issues arise in the context of player misconduct. On the field, players face tort liability if their actions are reckless, willful, or committed with a reckless disregard for the safety of another player, resulting in an injury to that player. This usually occurs when one player intentionally injures another player, like during a hockey fight. Negligence applies to professional athletes, but due to the physical nature of most professional sports a negligence action is more difficult to prove. Off the field, players are subject to strict requirements governing their conduct, particularly when it comes to the consumption of drugs and alcohol. Generally, these requirements are incorporated in the professional athlete’s contract with his or her team.
Regulating authorities, such as the National Football League and the National Basketball Association, also impose strict penalties for athletes who fail drug tests or are convicted of driving under the influence. The National Football League has recently expanded its body of rules governing appropriate player conduct on the field, imposing financial penalties and multi-game suspensions for inappropriate conduct.
Since professional athletes often rise to the level of celebrities, many issues surrounding contract law, intellectual property, and the right of publicity may arise. The right of publicity provides public figures with the right to control the reproduction of their likeness for a commercial purpose. If a sports drink company airs a commercial that features an athlete with many of the same mannerisms and identifying characteristics as a popular athlete, he or she may sue the sports drink company for compensation or seek an injunction preventing the company from any further unauthorized use of the athlete’s likeness.