Justia Legal Guides: Sports Law Center

For a short month, February has a variety of notable dates. There’s Groundhog Day on February 2, which brings a whimsical forecast of how much winter is left. There’s Valentine’s Day on February 14, which brings a blizzard of chocolates, flowers, and other tokens of romance. There’s President’s Day on the third Monday, which brings a chance to reflect on the contributions of Founding Father George Washington and Civil War President Abraham Lincoln.

But for many Americans, the biggest day in February is a Sunday. It used to be the first Sunday. Starting this year, it’s the second Sunday. No matter when it falls, Super Bowl Sunday is a day circled on the calendars of sports fans nationwide. (Even if you’re not a sports fan, the commercials and halftime show can make it worth the watch.) The history of this game between the two conference champions in the National Football League goes back a long way. The first Super Bowl was played in 1967, although the term “Super Bowl” was not used until 1969. This year, millions were on the edge of their seats as the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Philadelphia Eagles on a last-minute field goal to win Super Bowl LVII.

Many people on the Justia team love football or other sports, or all sports for that matter. Like many workplaces, we have a Super Bowl contest. A lot of thought goes into picking the winner, the score, and the ultimate challenge: total offensive yards. We’re happy to provide a Sports Law center in our Justia Legal Guides for fellow fans who may be interested in legal issues that can affect athletes. Some of these issues could arise at any level of competition. Others are largely specific to professional sports or college sports.

General Issues in Sports

Doping Test

To preserve the integrity of competition, sports leagues and other governing bodies have imposed doping regulations for athletes. These aim to prevent athletes from using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) to get an unfair advantage. Some types of PEDs are obvious, like anabolic steroids and human growth hormone, but some common medications also may be banned or restricted if they could affect performance in competition. If an athlete tests positive for a banned substance, and they haven’t received an exemption for its use, they could face a lengthy suspension.

For many athletes, a key source of income comes from endorsements of various businesses. Since millions of people may recognize and revere a famous athlete, they can help boost the reputation of a brand. Negotiating an endorsement agreement can involve some pitfalls for a business. They will want to make sure that they have a clear way out of the deal if something goes wrong. For example, an athlete might behave in a way that the brand does not want to be associated with its image. A morals clause can help mitigate this risk.

Injuries are unavoidable in many sports, especially those with a high rate of contact. An athlete who gets hurt in the normal course of play probably cannot sue anyone for compensation. This is because they have “assumed the risk” of participating in the sport, and they should be aware that they could be injured. However, they don’t assume risks that aren’t inherent to the sport. An athlete might have a claim if they were injured while using defective equipment or practicing at a poorly maintained facility, among other situations. If a fight breaks out, and an athlete who is assaulted was not willingly participating in the fight, they might have a claim as well.

Issues in Professional Sports

Issues in College Sports

Most professional sports in the U.S. have unions, such as the NFL Players’ Association and the MLB Players’ Association. These unions protect the rights of athletes in a league by negotiating collective bargaining agreements with team owners. An agreement covers issues such as salaries, player discipline, medical benefits, player grievances, the process for transferring players between teams, and much more. Some issues that may affect fans include the length of the season and the size of the playoff field. These agreements must be renegotiated at regular intervals. When negotiations break down, a lockout or player strike can disrupt the league.

A collective bargaining agreement may set out provisions for a standard contract between a team and a player, but some player contracts are much more complex. Athletes often hire agents to help them negotiate contracts, and they may even get help from attorneys. A player enters free agency when their contract ends. This means that they can sign a new contract with any other team that finds them a good fit. As a contract winds down, an athlete may need to decide whether to sign an extension with their current team or test free agency in search of a better deal. This decision may be largely financial, but it’s not always just about the money.

Some areas of law are not specific to professional athletes but could raise certain issues related to their occupation. For example, an athlete who has accumulated a huge amount of wealth might be concerned about financial issues if they divorce their spouse or have kids with someone. Property division in a divorce involving a professional athlete can get complex when a court decides which payments and assets count as marital property. Calculating child support also may be challenging and may require a deviation from the usual formula.

Issues in College Sports

Rights of Athletes

If you follow college sports, you’ve probably seen headlines about how name, image, and likeness rights are changing the game for these athletes. Less than two years ago, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) created new rules in this area. These allow student athletes to engage in NIL activities to the extent that this complies with state laws, as well as NCAA rules and any restrictions imposed by their conference or school. In other words, they can get paid by businesses for the use of their name, image, and likeness, and they can hire an agent to help them find these opportunities. Direct “pay for play” remains forbidden, though.

Most major universities receive federal funds. This means that they must comply with a federal law called Title IX that requires equal opportunities for male and female athletes. Funds for athletic scholarships must reflect the proportionate participation of each gender in sports. Female athletes must have similar benefits and access to services as male athletes. For example, their locker rooms, facilities, and equipment must be similar quality. If male athletes have access to tutoring and support programs, female athletes must have access to these programs too. Title IX also imposes a more complex participation requirement, which can be met in several ways.

Some colleges, athletic programs, or teams require student athletes to follow certain rules related to their conduct. These rules may or may not relate to playing the sport. For example, a school might have a dress code and an alcohol policy. If an athlete violates a behavior policy, they might be suspended or even kicked off a team. Some students have challenged disciplinary actions under behavior policies on constitutional grounds, such as free speech or equal protection.

Final Thoughts

Sports are tremendously entertaining for fans and tremendously lucrative for many participants. Over time, they have become a central part of American life. Issues in this area overlap with several other fields of law, ranging from antitrust and labor to personal injury and civil rights. This can make sports law complex, and someone who has a specific question in this area may want to talk to a sports law attorney about their situation. In the meantime, the Sports Law center at Justia discusses some of the key issues that may arise. It aims to make the law transparent and accessible to all.

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