Sports law is an amalgam of laws, regulations, and judicial decisions that apply to athletes and the sports they play. It is not a single legal topic with generally applicable principles. Sports law touches on a variety of matters, including contract, tort, agency, antitrust, constitutional, labor, trademark, sex discrimination, criminal, and tax issues. Some laws depend on the status of the athlete, some laws differ according to the sport, and some laws vary for other reasons.
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.
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 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. Since ancient Greece, victorious athletes in the Olympics have been rewarded, often handsomely rewarded, for their efforts.
Whether an athlete is eligible to compete in amateur events depends on the rules of the governing conference, league, or association. 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.
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 but if the individual has a right to participate, the court examines the individual’s relationship with the organization denying access. The dispute generally is decided according to contract or tort principles unless the organization is publicly funded.
Professional athletes are paid for their services. Professional sports organizations use a tremendous number of relationships and a similarly high number of agreements and contracts to support their industries. The parties involved include team owners, promoters, athletes, agents, lawyers, accountants, advertisers, builders, carriers, journalists, media outlets, politicians, courts, and the governing body of the particular sport.
For the professional athlete, the most immediate concern is the employment contract. The contract between the athlete and the employer determines the rights and duties of both parties. These contracts are bargained agreements, and the bargaining power of the respective parties is reflected in the terms. Unproven or average athletes generally obtain contracts for a salary and benefits that are less than those received by athletes of proven skill.
A professional sport is a complex business for the average athlete, and many athletes require the services of an agent. Agents negotiate personal service contracts with teams or individual promoters, and they manage the personal affairs of their clients. Agents may handle such concerns as taxes, financial planning, money management, investments, income tax preparation, incorporation, estate planning, endorsements, medical treatment, counseling, development of a career after sports, insurance, and legal matters. The agent is a fiduciary of the client-athlete, which means that the agent has a responsibility to act with the utmost care and good faith and to act in the athlete’s best interests. Agents must avoid activities that conflict with the interests of the client-athlete, and they must inform the athlete of any circumstances that might affect the athlete’s rights or interests. Many states require that agents obtain a license and post a security bond before they may work in the state.
Many sports pose serious dangers to participants. Generally, a person who suffers a sports-related injury may recover for medical expenses and other losses if the injury was caused by the negligence of another party. Injuries and damages resulting from intentional torts, such as battery or assault, likewise are recoverable.
Courts generally decide suits involving injuries to athletes, spectators, and other parties involved in sports according to basic tort laws. If a party owes a duty of care toward another party and that duty is breached, the party owing the duty is liable for any injuries suffered by the party to whom the duty is owed that result from the breach. The level of care that must be exercised depends on the situation: Dangerous situations require a high degree of care, whereas less dangerous situations require less care. Expectations may also play a part. For example, a spectator who is hit by a foul ball while sitting in the stands at a baseball game cannot recover for injuries because most fans know that stray balls in the stands are an inescapable by-product of baseball. However, a patron who is standing in the interior walkway of a stadium concourse may recover for injuries resulting from a foul ball. A spectator in the unfamiliar environs of a stadium is not aware of the dangers and thus is owed a greater duty of care by the baseball organization.
Athletes may recover for injuries resulting from another party’s negligence or intentional acts. Athletes in contact sports consent to some physical contact, but courts do not find that participants consent to contact that goes outside the bounds of the game. This is true for professional sports as well as amateur sports.
In some cases schools may be held liable for injuries to athletes. If an employee of the school, such as a coach, teacher, or referee, fails to properly supervise a student and the student suffers an injury as a result of the failure to supervise, the school may be held liable for its employee’s negligence. Generally, coaches, teachers, and referees must exercise reasonable care to prevent foreseeable injuries.
Defendants in sports-related personal injury suits may possess any number of defenses. One of the most successful of these defenses is that the party assumed the risk of being injured by playing in or watching the sporting event. Defendants also may argue that the plaintiff was negligent and therefore should recover only a portion of his damages or nothing at all. For example, a plaintiff may have ignored warnings or signed a document that waived the defendant’s liability for any injury suffered by the plaintiff.
Kaufman Law is now representing several tournament promoters who have had tournament hosts cancel the agreement and refuse to host the tournament. At least one promoter had been promoting his tournament at the host’s site for a year when the cancellation occurred. His losses are severe. Another client had a host cancel the agreement 3 days before the tournament was to occur. He had to find a new site for his tournament and notify all participants. We were able to help both of these clients. Have you had this happen? Are you worried about this happening? If so, we have ways to help you. Call us at 703.764.9080 or email us at [email protected].
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