Sports law is a broad term that describes all legal issues connected to both amateur and professional sports. In many aspects it overlaps with labor law, contract law, anti-trust law and tort law. Judges in American and European courts have tended to accept the principle that competitors, by accepting the rules of the game, are therefore subject to the game decisions of the referee or umpire, and ultimately the sport's rulemakers, and therefore there is no role for lawyers. Serious work in the area of sports law was relatively new in the last three decades of the 20th century, as player contracts with their clubs or franchises became more detailed and valuable in professional sports.
An important distinction that needs to be made is between amateur and professional competitors. High school, college or university athletes are usually considered amateurs as they are not paid for practicing the sport. They can receive a scholarship or other forms of funding but they do not have a labor contract. Until 1984, the Olympic Games maintained struct rules on amateurism for competitors in all its sports, including track and field, swimming and gymnastics. Once these rules were rolled back, however, it allowed for competitors in all Olympic sports to be paid for competing or for endorsing commercial products and services, opening the Games to millionaire tennis players and basketball teams. Into the 21st century, rules on amateurism tend only to be applied strictly by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), with its membership drawn from more than 1,000 colleges and universities in the United States.
Professional sports law most often deals with relations between athletes and their agents and between athletes and team owners. Agents represent players in different deal and contract negotiations. The basic contract principles of national and international law usually apply to sports contracts. Contracts deal with employment conditions in general but can also include individual details modified to suit the player and team owner. Usually the relations between the parties are administered by sport organizations, such as national and international federations, but there are cases that have gone beyond the boundaries of sport. The case of Belgian soccer player Jean-Marc Bosman, known as the "Bosman Ruling," was a dispute over the freedom of a player to contract with another club after the end of the term of his previous contract, rather than being subject to a transfer fee from the new club to the player's original employers. The case went to the European Court and Bosman's victory saw a radical change in transfer rights for soccer players. In 1995, the European Court applied the rules of free movement for workers and thus gave the players the right to freely change clubs at the end of their contracts.
A major issue that concerns both amateur and professional sport is substance misuse. The first rules against the use of performance-enhancing drugs and techniques were introduced by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in the 1960s, and applied by various international governing bodies of Olympic sports. The IOC's Medical Commission established a list with banned substances and procedures, all supervised by a network of accredited testing laboratories. From 1999, the IOC's responsibilities for drugs testing, analysis and drafting of rules were passed to the newly formed World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), based in Montreal, Canada, and which received funding from governments and has the support of a United Nations resolution.
As the result of a series of costly legal challenges to international federations and the IOC, often disputing athlete suspensions over failed drug tests, in the 1980s steps were taken to establish the Court of Arbitration for Sport, or CAS. With headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland and courts also located in New York and Sydney, Australia, as well as sittings in the host city during each Olympic Games, CAS's decisions are final and binding on both parties, and are intended to provide speedy resolution to disputes without recourse to expensive attorneys.
Off the field of play, spectator violence, racist abuse of players and hooliganism were a growing challenge for sports from the 1960s. The European Convention on Spectator Violence regulates actions to prevent violence and calls on sports bodies "… to facilitate close co-operation and exchange of appropriate information between the police forces of the different localities involved or likely to be involved; to apply or to adopt legislation which provides for those found guilty of offences related to violence or misbehavior by spectators to receive appropriate penalties."