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Student Athletes: Background on Amateurs vs. Professionals

Athletics is a critical part of the student experience in colleges across America. Football players charge down the field under the bright Saturday sunshine. Division I basketball players dribble down the court in packed stadiums. Regardless of their sport, student-athletes work hard on and off the field.

The conversation about whether student-athletes should earn money is a hot topic. People have long debated the difference between amateur and professional athletes. This discussion more recently reached the U.S. Supreme Court. This decision sparked significant changes in collegiate athletics.

This article gives a brief overview of student-athletes and compensation.

Background of Amateurism in Intercollegiate Athletics

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is a membership organization. It oversees intercollegiate athletics in the United States. Its member institutions include more than 1,200 schools, conferences, and other organizations. The NCAA has rules that separate amateur athletes from professionals. It has traditional rules against pay-for-play athletics. In the past, if a college athlete got paid, the NCAA rules would say they must lose their amateur status. This made them ineligible to compete in college sports.

The NCAA has long argued these rules help keep college sports honest and true. But some people disagree. Critics argue these rules stop student-athletes from getting enough financial aid. They claim they are not getting adequate educational benefits. Things got even trickier when Title IX passed in 1972. This law requires male and female athletes to have equal access to sports opportunities. They also need to have equal access to financial aid at educational institutions. Yet, the NCAA's rules on athlete compensation clashed with these protections.

The rules for amateur athletes, like those in school sports, come from a mix of laws. These laws apply to the athletes, the schools they play for, and most people working there. The rules cover different types of laws in America. This can include laws about injuries (tort law), taxes, and antitrust laws. It also touches on laws about civil rights. So, there's no single body of law for amateur sports.

Amateur vs. Professional Athletes

The biggest difference between amateur and professional athletes is how they get paid. Professional athletes get paid for how they play. They usually get a yearly salary. They might also earn rewards based on how well they and their teams do. They can also make money from people paying to use their name or picture, known as endorsements.

Like those in college sports, Amateur athletes usually couldn't get those same benefits. But things are changing. Many states passed new laws. These laws let athletes make money from their name, image, and likeness (NIL). States like CaliforniaTexasFlorida, and New York passed NIL laws. This caused disagreement with the NCAA's rules. And this led to people calling for changes to make the same rules throughout the country.

The biggest reward for amateur athletes is usually athletic scholarships. These scholarships pay for some or all of the student-athlete's tuition. They could also cover room and board and meals. These scholarships only last as long as the student-athlete stays in school. They apply only if the student continues playing the sport for which they got the scholarship. Some student-athletes also have to maintain certain grades to continue getting their scholarships.

In the past, if amateur athletes got paid for their performance in any way besides scholarships, they could face consequences. The NCAA or other athletic organizations would typically strip them of their amateur status. They would then lose their eligibility, prohibiting them from participating in college athletic programs.

U.S. Supreme Court Decision in NCAA v. Alston

The case of NCAA v. Alston (2021) brought this issue before the Supreme Court. The plaintiffs were a group of former NCAA athletes. They challenged the NCAA's limits on education-related benefits for athletes. They argued that this violated federal antitrust laws. In June 2021, the Supreme Court famously sided with the plaintiffs. Justice Neil Gorsuch authored the opinion for the unanimous court. Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote the concurring opinion. The decision signaled a major shift in the landscape of college sports.

Following the Supreme Court's decision, the NCAA revised its NIL policy and compensation rules. It allowed NCAA athletes to benefit from their NIL in line with state laws. They could earn money under the NCAA's new policy if there are none. This move was hailed as a victory for student-athletes. It opened new avenues for athlete compensation. Now, a Division I men's basketball player or high school football star could get financial aid or endorsements, a change to which amateur and professional sports are still adjusting.

In the wake of the Alston decision, Congress took steps to ensure a level playing field across the country. Senators proposed bills and amendments to regulate NIL compensation. They aimed to prevent any potential abuse of these new rules. The proposed legislation would create a federal standard, superseding differing state laws while protecting student-athletes' rights.

The Impact on Athletic Departments and Education

With these changes, athletic departments at NCAA member schools have to adjust. They need to balance their responsibilities under Title IX with the new opportunities for athlete compensation. Title IX called for equal opportunity among students. For example, if a school allows its male basketball players to make money from their NIL, they must also allow female athletes to do the same.

This could mean more resources and financial assistance provided to athletes. It could also mean improving their educational experiences. But, it raises questions about inducements and potential disparities among schools and their sports programs.

The conversation around college sports and athlete compensation has evolved significantly. The Supreme Court's decision in NCAA v. Alston, changes in state law, and the NCAA's new NIL policy all reflect a growing recognition of student-athletes' rights. This promises to shape the future of intercollegiate athletics. It creates new opportunities for students and prompts important discussions about fairness, compensation, and the nature of amateur sports.

Getting Legal Help With Student-Athlete Compensation

For student-athletes and their families, navigating these changes is challenging. Legal advice is crucial. This is particularly helpful when dealing with issues like contracts for endorsements and understanding the intricacies of state laws and the NCAA's NIL policy.

As the landscape of amateur and professional sports continues to evolve, having knowledgeable support can make a significant difference.

Talk to a contract lawyer or a sports/entertainment lawyer today.

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