The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is a voluntary association of over 1200 colleges and universities, sports organizations, and athletic conferences.

The NCAA regulates student athletics and collegiate athletics among about 1,100 American, Canadian, and Puerto Rican colleges and universities. It also organizes the athletic programs of colleges and universities in the United States and Canada and regulates over 500,000 college student athletes who compete annually in college sports. The NCAA’s headquarters is located in Indianapolis, Indiana. The organization exercises a great influence on the operation of collegiate sports.

How Is the NCAA Organized?

The NCAA is sectioned into three divisions, Division I, Division II, and Division III as follows:

  • Division I: Institutions that are members of Division I have to sponsor at least seven sports for men and seven for women (or six for men and eight for women) with two team sports for each gender;
  • Division II: Institutions that are members of Division II must sponsor at least four sports for men and four for women, with two team sports for each gender, and each playing season represented by each gender;
  • Division III: Division III institutions have to sponsor a minimum of five sports for men and five for women, with at least two team sports for each gender, and each playing season represented by each gender.

Division I and Division II colleges and universities can offer athletic scholarships to students for participating in a sport. Division III schools are not allowed to offer students athletic scholarships.

How Does the NCAA Determine if an Athlete Is a Professional?

In order to be eligible to compete and receive a scholarship as an NCAA athlete, a student athlete must meet the definition of an amateur athlete in addition to meeting minimum academic requirements. The process of evaluating an athlete’s eligibility as an amateur athlete happens within the NCAA’s Eligibility Center/Clearinghouse. Athletes answer a set of questions about the teams with which they have played and, based on the answers, the NCAA determines their eligibility. However more than 95 percent of recruits will not have a problem meeting the NCAA requirements.

The cornerstone of the amateurism rules is that student-athletes are not allowed to have received prize money beyond the reimbursement for the costs of participation in sports.

Basically, an athlete is deemed a professional if the athlete does the following:

  • Uses their athletic skills for pay in any form in their chosen sport;
  • Accepts a promise of pay even if the promise is to be fulfilled at a later date;
  • Signs a contract or commitment of any kind to play professional sports, regardless of the legal enforceability of the contract or any consideration received;
  • Receives, directly or indirectly, a salary, reimbursement of expenses or any other form of financial assistance from a professional sports organization based on athletic skill or participation, except as permitted by NCAA rules and regulations;
  • Competes on any professional athletic team and knows, or has reason to know, that the team is a professional athletic team;
  • Enters into the draft for a professional sport or an agreement with an agent or other entity to negotiate a contract with a professional sports organization.

Again, most student athletes who played with a sports team in high school would not have a problem qualifying as an amateur. The NCAA does allow athletes to receive some compensation as an amateur athlete, as long as the amounts they receive are not more than their actual and necessary expenses. Some athletes are asked to join travel teams in which their costs are reimbursed by the team. This is allowed, however if the athlete were to be paid more than their travel costs, they might have a problem.

There are activities that could give rise to issues regarding eligibility. Such activities as the following could be problematic:

  • The athlete is paid appearance fees, including things such as athletes with large YouTube followings who profit from advertising dollars;
  • The athlete expressly or impliedly endorses commercial products or services. If the athlete is paid in any way to wear a specific brand or promote a product, it would be considered a violation;
  • The athlete accepts prize money that pays them amounts beyond the actual and necessary expenses of participation in a sport or competition. It is not a violation of NCAA rules for a potential NCAA athlete to have participated in professional competitions. However, if they are eligible to win prize money, it cannot exceed the amount of the expense of participation.
  • Tennis players are allowed to accept up to $10,000 per year and still maintain eligibility; this is a special exemption for tennis players only.

Can Athletes Now Be Paid to Play a Sport at NCAA Schools?

In 1978, Division I collegiate football was itself divided into Divisions I-A and I-AA. In 2006, Divisions I-A and I-AA were respectively renamed the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) and Football Championship Subdivision (FCS).

In the 2016–2017 fiscal year, the NCAA reaped a total of $1.06 billion in revenue from the marketing of college sports competitions. More than 82% of this take was generated by the Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, popularly known as “March Madness.”

The NCAA formerly capped the benefits that collegiate athletes could receive from the schools for which they played. Economists generally agree that these caps, especially for men’s basketball and football players, benefited the schools at the expense of the athletes. Mainstream economists have characterized the NCAA as a cartel. In June of 2021, in the case of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. v. Alston, the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the NCAA’s caps on the education-related benefits that can be paid to college athletes violate U.S. antitrust law.

The decision enables colleges and universities to provide their athletes with unlimited compensation as long as the compensation is in some way related to their education. So, the concept that amateurism in collegiate athletics should be maintained by restricting compensation for college athletes is undergoing legal challenge. Lawsuits based on federal antitrust law may continue to erode the strict amateurism rules of the NCAA in the domain of compensation.

In fact, another lawsuit that challenges all limits the NCAA places on future name, image and likeness opportunities for college athletes is currently in progress. It is possible that lawyers for athletes would ask courts to remove all restrictions on the type of compensation schools can give to their athletes.

Currently, however, for Divisions I and II, there are still also academic requirements for initial eligibility. Incoming student-athletes in those divisions are subject to academic standards, which take into account their scores on standardized tests, the number of core courses taken in high school and the grades earned in those core courses.

For students to be initially eligible for Division I and II athletics, In addition to the NCAA requirements, they must also meet the acceptance requirements of the university they plan to attend. The acceptance criteria of the college or university may be more stringent than those of the NCAA.

Once admitted to their college or university and deemed eligible for the NCAA, Division I student-athletes must also meet requirements that require specified progress every year toward a degree and graduation.

Division III institutions require student-athletes to meet the same overall academic standards as does the college or university in which the student-athlete is enrolled.

The primary mission of the NCAA is to promote amateur sports. Thus, if the NCAA were to determine that an athlete is a professional, the association would take away their eligibility.

A student seeking NCAA eligibility for a Division I or II school needs to gain certification through the NCAA Eligibility Center. The student can set up a “Certification Account” and get guidance about acquiring certification through the NCAA ‘s website. An account is necessary if the student wants to make official visits to Divisions I and II schools or to sign an NCAA National Letter of Intent.

A student athlete who hopes to compete at a Division III school or who is not yet sure where they want to compete should create an NCAA Profile Page to get an NCAA ID. They will then receive helpful reminders as they complete their high school careers.

Keep in mind that the NCAA loosened initial eligibility restrictions for student-athletes who intend to play Division I or II sports in both the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 academic years because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Student-athletes who graduate from high school in 2022 who intend to compete at a Division I or II college or university are no longer required to take the ACT or SAT. They are also allowed to submit pass/fail grades for core courses. Their amateur status is determined on the basis of their answers on their amateurism certificate. In extreme cases, the NCAA may investigate their amateurism status.

What Is Pay?

The NCAA defines currently defines “pay” to include the following:

  • Salaries;
  • Educational expenses outside those permitted by the NCAA;
  • Expenses for parents;
  • Payment based on performance, prizes, and preferential treatment, benefits or services.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that the rules may change in light of legal assaults on NCAA rules regarding pay, as noted above.

Do I Need a Lawyer If I Have an Eligibility Dispute with the NCAA?

If you have an eligibility issue with the NCAA, you want to consult with an entertainment lawyer who is familiar with NCAA bylaws and rules. It may be possible to resolve the issue through negotiation, or you may have grounds for challenging NCAA rules and regulations on the basis of antitrust laws.