Soccer and the NCAA

Elite youth soccer players in the USA generally must consider one of two paths after they complete high school. Should they try to play soccer professionally somewhere, perhaps in the MLS or Europe? Or, should they try to play soccer in college? Those two paths are mutually exclusive, because the soccer player that turns professional can no longer play college soccer. Some players delay this decision for a year after high school and choose to take a “gap year” where they may train and play with a professional team for one year before making their final decision on college. These players are hedging their bets: they either succeed abroad and are offered a professional contract; or, they are not offered a professional contract but they receive valuable training from a professional club that will greatly benefit them in college.

Having said that, what can elite youth soccer players do without losing their college eligibility? Can they accept payments from professional clubs while competing with them after high school? Can they speak to agents? Can they agree to be represented by an agent down the road, after they finish college, without signing any written agent agreement? What kind of payments can they accept? The NCAA Regulations address all these issues, and it is important for young soccer players and their families to understand the key points, which we address here.

The key bylaws regarding amateurism are contained in Article 12 of the NCAA Regulations, which are titled “Amateurism and Athletics Eligibility.” The main point to remember is that NCAA athletics are reserved for “amateurs.”

An individual can lose their amateur status because of activities done prior to enrollment in college and they can lose their amateur status while enrolled in college as student-athletes. There is a myriad of ways that an individual or student-athlete can lose their college eligibility, meaning that they did something that turned them from an amateur soccer player to a professional.

Here is the basic rule – an individual loses their amateur status if they:

  1. Use athletics skill for “pay” in any form in that sport;
  2. Accepts a promise of “pay” even if such pay is to be received following completion of intercollege athletics participation;
  3. Signs a contract or commitment of any kind to play professional athletics, regardless of its legal enforceability or any consideration received, except as explicitly permitted by the NCAA;
  4. Receives a salary, reimbursement of expenses or any other form of financial assistance from a professional sports organization based on athletics skill or participation except as explicitly permitted by the NCAA;
  5. Competes on any “professional athletics team” (which is defined as a team that declares itself to be professional, or a team that provides any of its players more than actual and necessary expenses for participation on the team), even if no pay or renumeration for expenses was received – if the individual receives more than “actual and necessary expenses to participate on the team.”
  6. After full-time college enrollment, enters into a professional draft; or
  7. Enters into an agreement with an “agent.”

 

Many terms are specifically defined in the NCAA Regulations, so it is important to know what those terms mean. The terms, as used by the NCAA, may be broader than you think.

For instance, there are many prohibited forms of “pay.” Under the NCAA Regulations, prohibited forms of “pay” include salary, gratuity or compensation; any division or split of bonuses or game receipts; certain educational expenses; excessive or improper expenses, award and benefits; payment based on an individual or team’s performance that exceeds actual and necessary expenses; and participating for pay in “superstars” competitions.

 

A key concept of the NCAA Regulations relating to “pay” involves “actual and necessary expenses.” This term is used throughout the Regulations. Certain regulations allow for individuals and student-athletics to receive “pay” in the form of “actual and necessary expenses,” but nothing more. Therefore, it is important to know what “actual and necessary expenses” include and what they do not include.

Under the NCAA Regulations, permissible actual and necessary expenses include:

  1. Meals
  2. Lodging
  3. Apparel, equipment and supplies
  4. Coaching and instruction
  5. Health/medical insurance
  6. Transportation (expenses to and from practice and competition; cost of transportation from home to training/practice site at the beginning of the season/preparation for an event and from training/practice/event site to home at the end of season/event)
  7. Medical treatment and physical therapy
  8. Facility usage
  9. Entry fees
  10. Other reasonable expenses

The value of such actual and necessary expenses must be commensurate with the fair market value of similar goods and services in the locality in which the expenses are provided and must not be excessive in nature (so, an elite soccer player probably can’t be given a 5-star hotel room for lodging). Also, actual and necessary expenses shall not include the expenses or fees of anyone other than the individual who participates as a member of the team (so, actual and necessary expenses would normally not include those of a player’s parents or their friends who are along for the ride).

Here are some other key concepts:

Use of Agents.

An “agent” is defined by the NCAA as any individual who, directly or indirectly: (a) represents or attempts to represent an individual for the purpose of marketing the individual’s athletics ability or reputation for financial gain; or (b) seeks to obtain any type of financial gain or benefit from securing a prospective student athlete’s enrollment at an educational institution or from a student athlete’s potential earnings as a professional athlete.

The NCAA general rule is that an individual is ineligible for participation in an intercollegiate sport if the individual ever agrees – orally or in writing – to be represented by an agent for the purpose of marketing athletics ability or reputation in that sport. Along those lines, an individual is ineligible if they enter into an oral or written agreement with an agent for representation in future professional sports negotiations that are to take place after the individual has completed eligibility in that sport. Moreover, an individual is ineligible if he or she – or their family members or friends – accepts transportation or other benefits from: (a) any person who represents any individual in the marketing of athletics ability; or (b) an agent – even if the agent has indicated no interest in representing the student athlete in the marketing of the student athlete’s athletics ability or reputation and does not represent individuals and that student athlete sport.

The key takeaway with agents is that although individuals and student athletes may speak to agents, it is important that they receive nothing from the agent in terms of compensation (not even a free cup of coffee!), and they should not discuss or make any agreement for the agent to represent the player when they decide to turn professional.

Use of Attorneys.

Securing advice from a lawyer concerning a proposed professional sports contract is not considered contracting for representation by an agent unless the lawyer also represents the individual in negotiations for such a contract. Also, a lawyer may not be present during discussions of a contract offer with a professional organization or have any direct contact (in person, by telephone or by mail) with a professional sports organization on behalf of the individual. A lawyer’s presence during such discussions is considered representation by an agent.

Tryouts.

An individual may take part in a tryout with a professional team or league prior to full-time collegiate enrollment if no more than actual and necessary expenses are received to participate. After full-time college enrollment, an individual who has eligibility remaining may try out for a professional soccer team or participate in a combine including that team at any time, provided that the individual does not miss class and they receive no more than actual and necessary expenses with one 48-hour tryout per professional team (the individual can stay more than 48 hours, but they have to pay for all their expenses after 48 hours and they cannot miss any classes).

Practice.

Prior to initial full-time enrollment, an individual may participate in practice sessions conducted by a professional team if that no more than actual and necessary expenses is received to participate. After initial full-time college enrollment, an individual may participate in practice sessions conducted by a professional team if the individual does not receive any compensation other than actual and necessary expenses for the practice sessions over the course of a 48-hour period and does not miss class (the individual can stay longer if they pay their own way and do not miss class); does not enter into any contract or agreement with the professional team or sports organization; and does not take part in any outside competition as a representative of a professional team.

Competition.

An individual may participate as a member of an amateur team against professional athletes or professional teams.

Before initial full-time college enrollment, an individual may compete on a professional team if the individual does not receive more than actual and necessary expenses to participate. Otherwise, an individual shall not be eligible for intercollegiate athletics in a sport if the individual ever competed on professional team in that sport.

This provision allows high school graduates to take that gap year abroad and compete with a professional sports team, provided that they receive no more than actual and necessary expenses in doing so.

This provision also allows for college soccer players to participate with USL 2 teams during the summer because those teams are still considered “amateur,” or as the USL calls them – “pre-professional.” Therefore, they are participating as a member of an amateur team against other teams.

Draft and Inquiry.

An individual may inquire of a professional sports organization about eligibility for professional league player draft or request information about the individual’s market value without affecting the individual’s amateur status. However, after initial full-time college enrollment, an individual loses amateur status in a particular sport when the individual asks to be placed on the draft list or supplemental draft list for a professional league in that sport, even though: the individual asks to be removed from the draft list prior to the actual draft; the individual’s name remain on the list but the individual is not drafted; or the individual is drafted but does not sign an agreement with any professional athletics team. There is one key exception to this rule for soccer players.

A student athlete in the sport of soccer may enter a professional league draft one time during collegiate participation without jeopardizing eligibility in that sport, provided that the student athlete is not drafted and, within 72 hours following the draft, declares the intention to resume participation in intercollegiate athletics.

Negotiations.

An individual may request information about professional market value without affecting amateur status. Further, the individual or their family members or the institution’s professional sports counseling panel may enter into negotiations with the professional sports organization without the loss of the individual’s amateur status. However, an individual who retains an agent shall lose amateur status.

As you might imagine, the NCAA Regulations are long and a bit complex. These are only the key points regarding amateurism and every specific situation must be analyzed thoroughly because situations can vary considerably. It is also important to seek the advice and counsel of those who are familiar with the regulations and how they are applied.

For more information, contact Mario Iveljic, who is a Partner and one of the Founders of Mag Mile Law. He is also a registered soccer agent (intermediary) with the U.S. Soccer Federation. He can be reached at [email protected], or (708) 576-1624.

 

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