• High School Athletes Beware: There Is No Free Lunch
  • December 30, 2003 | Author: Thomas M. Ramsberger
  • Law Firm: Trenam, Kemker, Scharf, Barkin, Frye, O'Neill & Mullis, Professional Association - St. Petersburg Office
  • Did you know high school athletes can lose their eligibility to play collegiate sports even before they enroll in college? Loss of eligibility may be caused by overzealous boosters who have no intention of jeopardizing a student-athlete's eligibility or by unscrupulous sports agents attempting to solicit clients at an early age.

    The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is the governing body determining eligibility for intercollegiate competition for most collegiate athletic programs in the U.S. The NCAA sets and strictly enforces parameters governing the interactions among athletes, boosters and sports agents.

    Fortunately, most collegiate athletic programs have compliance departments dedicated to protecting the interests of student-athletes and continuously educating them on retaining their eligibility and amateur status. However, until they are under the protection of a university's compliance department, high school-aged student-athletes with a desire to compete at the collegiate level, as well as coaches, parents and friends of the athlete, should have a working knowledge of NCAA rules and be vigilant about preserving the athlete's eligibility.

    Although this article does not provide a complete accounting of NCAA rules, it will provide you with an overview of rules that high school student-athletes should follow and situations they should avoid.

    Know the difference between a booster and a family friend. A booster is defined quite broadly by the NCAA as a representative of an institution's athletics interest who has: contributed to the athletic department or Booster Club, joined the institution's Booster Club, assisted in recruiting prospective student-athletes, provided benefits to enrolled students (such as a summer job), and/or promoted the institution's athletic programs. Once an individual becomes a representative of the institution's athletic interest, he or she retains the "booster" label forever.

    Do not accept favors or special benefits from boosters. School boosters who, regardless of intent, influence high school athletes' decisions or provide impermissible "favors" for them, can easily jeopardize the athletes' eligibility. Impermissible favors include any benefit or special arrangement that would not be offered to the general student population, such as providing entertainment, awards or gifts (anything of value) to a high school athlete, his family or friends.

    Offers of employment. The athletes must initiate communication about employment. A booster may employ or arrange for employment of an athlete, but employment cannot begin until after the completion of the athlete's senior year in high school. Compensation must only be paid for work performed at the going rate in the locality for similar services. A booster may not provide an athlete with summer employment transportation unless the employer's established policy is to provide transportation for all employees.

    Funds and loans. A booster may not pay fees associated with any sports camp, provide a loan or gift of money, guarantee a bond, offer the use of an automobile, sign or co-sign a loan, or sell items at reduced costs for an athlete.

    Meetings with college coaches. A booster may not invite a prospect to a booster meeting or to meet a coach of the institution. Only coaches are allowed to arrange meetings with athletes.

    Sports agents. Fierce competition to represent athletes at the professional level has led some sports agents to engage in activities that put their licenses at risk and, even worse, jeopardize the student-athlete's eligibility. Sports agents strive to develop relationships with potential pro athletes early in the athletes' careers, sometimes before an athlete reaches high school. The NCAA considers development of relationships with athletes (potential clients) an acceptable part of the process, as long as nothing of value is received by athletes or their friends and family.

    Dealing with a sports agent is similar to dealing with boosters, and many of the same rules apply. Although the NCAA does allow sports agents to befriend student-athletes and their families, student-athletes are advised to keep agents at arm's length.

    NCAA rules and Florida statutes prohibit agents from offering anything of value to a prospective client, a relative or close friend of a prospect. Further, student-athletes who agree (orally or in writing) to be represented by an agent, even if such representation is for future professional sports negotiations, will lose their eligibility.

    The state of Florida and many other states have statutes requiring athlete agents to register, pass an examination and pay an annual fee. Sports agents who are also attorneys have additional solicitation and ethical constraints, prohibiting them from initiating contact with any athlete or paying a prospective client or relative or friend to obtain representation of an athlete. Student-athletes should not accept gifts from anyone, since sports agents have been known to use "runners" to help solicit clients by befriending athletes and persuading them to hire a particular agent. Runners often provide gifts, transportation, or other benefits the NCAA may consider linked to an agent, thus jeopardizing the athlete's eligibility.

    Although they will receive a formalized lesson in NCAA compliance once they reach college, high school student-athletes, parents, administrators, coaches and friends should be aware of and vigilant about eligibility rules much earlier. Remember, for the student-athlete there is no free lunch.