Sports law in the United States

For rules of sports, also called "laws", see Laws of the Game.

Sports law in the United States is the body of legal issues at work in the world of both amateur and professional sports in the United States. Sports law overlaps substantially with labor law, contract law, competition or antitrust law, and tort law. Issues like defamation and privacy rights are also integral aspects of sports law. This area of law was established as a separate and important entity only a few decades ago, coinciding with the rise of player-agents and increased media scrutiny of sports law topics.

Amateur sports law

Membership is voluntary. The NCAA operates along a series of bylaws that govern the areas of ethical conduct, amateur eligibility, financial aid, recruiting, gender equity, championship events, and academic standards. The NCAA has enforcement power and can introduce a series of punishments up to the death penalty, the company term for the full shut-down of a sporting activity at an offending college. Coaches are offered contracts and if any contractual agreement is violated NCAA has the right to hold any person(s) under the contract liable.[1]

Title IX is an increasingly important issue in college sports law.[2] The act, passed in 1972, makes it illegal for a federally funded institution to discriminate on the basis of sex or gender. In sports law, the piece of legislation often refers to the effort to achieve equality for women's sports in colleges. The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) is charged with enforcing this legislation. This agency implemented a three-prong test for schools to adhere to:

In 1995 the Gender in Equity Disclosure Act was passed to require schools to make an annual, public report on male-female athletic participation rates, recruiting by gender, and financial support. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown University v. Cohen, is an important aspect of litigation for women sports.

A critical piece of federal legislation, the Amateur Sports Act of 1978 guarantees certain due process rights including hearings and appeals for U.S. athletes under the governance of the USOC and its NGBs.

Labor issues in sports

In 1967, the National Labor Relations Board accepted that players have the right to form unions or players' associations. It is now common for professional athletes to organize into associations or unions in order to negotiate collective bargaining agreements' (CBAs) with their sport's owners. Under federal labor law, players and owners must negotiate mandatory issues, those relating to hours, wages, and working conditions, in good faith. All other issues are deemed "permissive," and do not have to be negotiated. Once a CBA is in place, players agree not to strike and owners promise not to lock out players. By way of example, the 2005 National Hockey League season was cancelled because of an owners' lockout after the parties' CBA had expired. In 1994, Major League Baseball lost half its season and the playoffs because ballplayers went on strike over the issue of a salary cap. Historically, the most controversial issues subject to CBA negotiation are free agency, minimum salary, squad size, draft, salary cap, grounds for termination, and suspension.

In nearly all professional sports, the issue of limits on the use of performance-enhancing drugs has become an integral aspect of CBA negotiations. Drug policies are not uniform for all professional sports. Typically, each CBA explains the policy regarding drug testing, list of banned drugs, violations, penalties, privacy issues, and rights of appeal. Drug violations may lead to suspensions and loss of salary. The BALCO controversy involving high-profile professional athletes and coaches highlights the allegedly widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs in different sports.

Player agents, made famous by the famous line from a player to his agent ("Show me the money!") in the movie Jerry Maguire, are generally certified by each sport's players' association. Once certified, player agents or contract advisors may negotiate individual player contracts. Agents who are entrusted to conduct business on a player's behalf owe a fiduciary duty, i.e., a duty to remain loyal, act honestly, behave ethically, and act in the player's best interest when negotiating. More than half the states in the United States currently regulate the activities of player agents in addition to union regulation for bad acts. Super agents like baseball's Scott Boras and football's Drew Rosenhaus are frequently the subject of media profiles.

The first body to assist player agents in learning the ins and outs of contract negotiations, endorsements and media relations was the Association for Representatives of Athletes. The co-founders and leaders of ARPA, since absorbed into the NFL Players Association, were Professor William Weston (University of Baltimore Law School) and Professor Michael E. Jones (University of Massachusetts Lowell). The late Bob Woolf is acknowledged as being one of the first player agents for assisting Boston Red Sox pitcher Earl Wilson to negotiate his player contract.

Antitrust issues in sports

Until a few decades ago, most United States professional sports leagues' contracts retained clauses contracts that essentially prevented players from leaving their original teams by their own choice. These "reserve clauses" were upheld because courts found that these sports leagues did not operate in interstate trade or commerce, meaning they did not fall under antitrust laws. See Federal Baseball Club v. National League. This interpretation has largely been eroded today. However, Major League Baseball may still retain limited anti-trust exemptions (it is unclear whether the entire exemption has been overruled by Flood Act because the true extent of the exemption was vague). It is important to note that the formation of players unions for the purpose of negotiating contracts with management is exempt from anti-trust scrutiny under labor law. The by-product of good faith negotiations between management and players unions in the form of a CBA is also exempt from anti-trust scrutiny.

Tort law issues

Until recently, torts were never part of the landscape of sports law. A tort can be defined as an actionable wrong [3] However, in 1975 an Illinois appeals court established that players can be found guilty of negligence if their actions are "deliberate, willful or with a reckless disregard for the safety of another player so as cause injury to that player." See Nabozny v. Barnhill. Negligence torts are typically harder to prove in contact sports, where violent actions and injuries are more common and thus more expected ("assumption of risk" or "self-defense"). Spectators can also sue for negligence if their injuries could not have been expected (not "foreseeable") given the nature of the sporting event they were attending. A baseball fan sitting in the bleachers could reasonably expect a baseball might come toward the seat, but a wrestling fan sitting courtside would not reasonably expect a wrestler to come flying his or her way.

Sports' tort law extends into other less obvious areas. Team doctors could be liable for medical malpractice, a form of negligence, for giving a player a false clean bill of health so the player may continue to perform. A player who purposefully causes bodily harm to another athlete, coach, or spectator may be guilty of committing an intentional tort along with a criminal act of assault and battery.[4] The law of defamation protects a person's good character or reputation. The publication of false information about a well-known athlete ("public figure") may be actionable if it was published with a reckless disregard for the truth or actual malice. The growth of non-traditional media outlets, e.g. web pages, instant messaging, cable, etc. has added a new dynamic to this area of the law.

Closely related to the subject of torts in some ways, is the area of publicity rights. While the tort of defamation protects a person's reputation, the right of publicity permits a person to commercially exploit his or her likeness, name, and image. This area of sports law includes trademarks, tradenames, domain names, and copyrights.

Academic aspects of sports law

Outside the U.S.

International amateur sports are run by a variety of organizations. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is made up of each country's Olympic Committee, which in turn recognizes a national governing body (NGB) for each Olympic related sport. The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) is the national governing body for all U.S. athletes in the Olympic and Pan-American Games. The IOC is the international governing body for the summer and winter Olympic Games.

Labor issues are not unique to United States law. The European Union has dealt with countless sports-related legal issues. The most important development in this area was the Bosman ruling, in which the European Court of Justice invalidated restrictions imposed by EU member countries and UEFA (the governing body for football within Europe) on foreign EU nationals. Bosman was extended to countries with associate trading relationships with the EU by the Kolpak ruling. The 6+5 rule was a proposed rule by FIFA that sought to limit the effects of Bosman and its offshoots on football clubs; it sparked considerable legal controversy in Europe and was abandoned in 2010.

The subject of drug testing, especially in international sports like cycling and track and field, is under the jurisdiction of each sport's NGB and international federation, the USOC, the IOC, and the World Anti-Doping Agency. The final arbitrator in resolving drug related disputes is the Court of Arbitration for Sports.


The capacity for the law of assault to intervene in contact sports is limited by the athlete's willing participation. By engaging in a sport, participants are held to accepted the inherent risks of such an activity as applied in Rootes v Shelton[17].

However, questions of legality arise where the conduct was deliberate as was the case in McCracken v Melbourne Storm & Orcs, where Melbourne Storm players sought to intentionally injure McCracken during play.[18] Similarly, issues also arise where conduct can be characterised to fall "outside the scope of the Plaintiff's consent to degree of physical contact during the game",[19] thus invoking compensation.


  3. chester, nolte (1979). Sports Law [microform] : Tort Liability of the College and University Athletic Department Administrator. Washington D.C.: ERIC clearinghouse. pp. 1–2.
  4. R v Tevaga [1990] 1 NZLR 296
  8. anderson, paul (Spring 2015). "marquette sports law review". marquette sports law review. Retrieved 2015-10-26.
  9. Sports Law Marquette University Law School
  10. Tulane Law School
  11. Tulane Law School Adacemics
  14. 2014 UF Law Sports Law Symposium Levin College of Law
  15. Mission The Jeffrey S. Moorad
  16. villanova
  17. "(1967) 116 CLR 383, 385.".
  18. McCracken v Melbourne Storm & Ors [2005] NSWSC 107; see also Canterbury Bankstown Rugby League Football Club Ltd v Rogers; Bugden v Rogers [1993] NSWCA 49
  19. Sibley v Milutinovic [1990] ACTC 6
  1. Champion, Walter, Sports Law. 2nd edition, St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Co. 2000. ISBN 0314238891
  2. Dudley, William, Drugs and Sports. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2001. ISBN 1565106970
  3. Epstein, Adam, Sports Law. Clifton Park, NY: Thomson Press, 2003. ISBN 0766823245
  4. Jones, Michael. Sports Law. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1999. ISBN 0136765459
  5. Jones, Michael. Rules of the Game: Sports Law, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016. ISBN 978-1-4422-5806-8
  6. Weiler, Paul and Roberts, Gary. Sports and the Law. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing, 1993. ISBN 0-314-02162-0
  7. Wong, Glenn. Essentials of Amateur Sports Law. Westport, CN: Praeger, 1994.
  8. Yasser, Raymond, et al. Sports Law: Cases and Materials, 5th edition, Cincinnati, OH: Anderson Publishing Co., 2003 ISBN 1583607994

Further reading

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