Sports Law

Updated March 13, 2023
6 min read

There are many laws in sports that affect professional sports athletes and the sports market. Whether someone is an amateur or professional with a lucrative sporting career on professional teams, lawyers in the sports industry work to ensure all athletes are protected whether it comes down to the treatment they received from the organization they play for, the way they interact with each other, or their playing agreement or contract.

What Is Sports Law?

The definition of sports law is the law that pertains to sports. There are many laws in sports, many of which overlap. There have been historical cases that have to do with different sports and law areas. The most important of these is the NCAA or National Collegiate Athletic Association. The NCAA is the governing body for Collegiate Sports which means Sports in colleges and universities. In fact, over 50% of the members of this organization are sponsored by state governments.

Another important law and sports has to do with equality among the sexes. Title IX, passed in 1972, makes it illegal for any university that receives Federal funding to discriminate against students because of their gender or their sex. It was this law that allowed women equal opportunities to participate in sports. 

For professional athletes, there are other regulating bodies like the National Football League or the National Basketball Association. These organizations determine the rules for things like fairness among different leagues and how individuals who are a part of different leagues are expected to perform and behave. For example, the status of a team and a player can be dictated by whether they use illegal drugs. These organizations have mandatory drug testing, thanks to NCAA v. Tarkanian 109 U.S. 454 (1988)

Areas of Sports Law

Sports law serves as a collection of different areas of law all of which impact the sports industry. The issues an attorney might resolve can pertain to professional athletes, amateur athletes who are part of university teams, even Olympic athletes who are regulated by the United States Olympic Committee ("USOC") in 1950. The many overlapping examples of sports laws and fields that pertain to sports law include things like contracts, personal injury, criminal acts, and trademarks.

Contract Law

One of the more common areas is that of contract law. When professional athletes sign with a sports team, they sign a contract. For professional athletes, these contracts can be worth millions of dollars and they have to stipulate the terms of the athletic performance in exchange for compensation. In these situations, athletes can use sports lawyers to help them negotiate their contract or draft a new one. This area of contract law as it relates to sports can involve athletic trainers who are also under contract, managers, or coaches.

Personal Injury Law

Whether it is in the middle of a game or practice, injuries can happen no matter what the sport. The area of personal injury law pertains to sports law in the event that an athlete wants to pursue a legal claim after they have been injured. Similarly, fans at a sporting event where things get out of hand could file personal injury claims against the sporting venue. In fact, sports venues have a duty to keep their stadiums safe for their patrons under premises liability so if fans sustain injuries, it could represent negligence on behalf of the sporting venue.

Trademark Law in Sports Law

Professional teams rely heavily on trademarks. A trademark refers to a name, logo, or slogan that is legally protected at the federal level. In order for sports teams, coaches, trainers, and venues to maintain rights and control over their name, their logo, or their slogan, they need to file trademarks. In this sense, sports lawyers can help navigate the tricky waters of trademark filing and help in the event of trademark infringement to enforce the legality of those trademarks. Merchandise sold on behalf of a sporting team or venue is a critical source of income especially for college teams and professional teams. Enforcing trademark rights is imperative to the successful sale of merchandise.

Criminal Law

One of the most famous criminal cases is that of steroids among professional athletes like Barry Bonds. Athletes are susceptible to criminal prosecution for the things they do in order to prepare for the games like the use of illegal drugs, or the manner in which they play on the field. Causing serious injury or death to another athlete can result in criminal charges for assault and battery. In certain states, there are “athletic events” which are deemed illegal not just to play but even to attend or watch. One example is dogfighting and cockfighting both of which are illegal in all states. Keeping a record clean and professional relies on knowing what things an athlete can and cannot do with the help of a sports lawyer.

Competition Law

Competition law is an area that regulates market competition, or Antitrust, and in effect allows there to be competition in the public world of sports. Venues, coaches, and other administrators can rely on an attorney to make sure one particular team or owner isn't using anti-competitive methods or products 2 create a monopoly or prevent other teams from participating.

Sports and Human Rights

Sports our careers especially at the professional level or the Olympic level and as such sports lawyers can help individuals better understand their rights as it pertains to work. Just the same as someone in an office can't be forced to work too many hours or in unsuitable conditions, the same applies to professional athletes and sports venues that employee hundreds if not thousands of employees to sell merchandise or food and drink, fill rolls as security officers, and handle administrative work. Sports law can help clients understand properly labor laws as it relates to sports and human rights and ensure that they are hiring in a legal fashion, handling taxes and medical leave properly, offering the right level of workers compensation and health insurance.

Arbitrating Sports Disputes

Different leagues might employ their own lawyer and multiple areas of practice might be applicable to a single case. Understanding the degree to which a right was violated within different law programs can be very resourceful when it comes to arbitration. 

When issues arise, sports disputes can be negotiated using arbitration. Arbitration is a legal form of settling disputes prior to going to the court. In fact, arbitration is a private way to handle disputes without information being publicized and this can be a much more appealing solution for athletes who want to maintain their reputation or sports teams and venues that want to keep the information confidential. 

Final Comments

If you are having issues with your sports contract or commercial sports, consider arbitration with a qualified attorney.

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