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“Can I Play?” Legal Documentation Necessary for International Competition

26 Jun, 2013

By: Michael Wildes

Despite the current conflicts in our nation over foreign policy, equal rights and immigration, a common denominator has always been our love for a scoreboard. Four of the America’s five most popular team sports were developed in North America: American football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey. As such, this gave rise to the National Basketball Association (NBA), National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), and the National Hockey League (NHL), which, together with their equally as impressive college counterparts, all enjoy massive media exposure and are considered the preeminent competitions in their respective sports in the world.

With increased globalization, Americans are seeing the appeal of international stars more than ever. Regardless of their local origins, every competition, from the upcoming NBA Finals to intramural slow-pitch softball leagues, are heavily influenced by the dramatic increases in international athlete participation—up more than 1,000 percent over the last 10 years.

This exponential increase of players and cultures into the once exclusively ‘American’ domain has cast a net so wide on the available talent, that more than 180 countries have joined our local leagues, colleges and professional arenas. As a result, we have been witness to greatness with the likes of David Beckham, Albert Pujols, and Dirk Nowitzki, who have wildly increased international appeal in American sports with their spectacular performances.

Since it is a modern rarity today for professional sport franchises to have “local products”, our government has facilitated the ebb and flow and foreign athletes into our stadiums through the establishment of the P Visa. The P visa is available for individual or team players who have gained international recognition and seeking to enter the United States to compete in a competitive sporting event. Individual athletes may be admitted for up to 5 years initially.

One extension of up to 5 years is allowed. There are no travel restrictions on a P-1 visa, allowing and athlete to enter and leave the country as they please. Group athletes can be admitted entry to compete for a maximum of one year, with respect to their sport’s particular season, with one year extension increments. Similarly, we have opened our doors even wider to accommodate essential support personnel, such as coaches, scouts, trainers and other team officials as well.

The application process is highly regulated, requiring the petitioning organization to document every player involved, supplemented by copies of their passports, and other biographical information. The petitioner must present a tendered contract with a major U.S. sports league or team or a tendered contract in an individual sport commensurate with international recognition in that sport, and at least two of the following types of evidence:

  • Participation to a significant extent in a prior season with a major U.S. sports league;

  • Participation on a national team at international events;

  • Participation to a significant extent in a prior season with a U.S. collegiate team;

  • A written statement from an official in the governing body of the sport outlining how the athlete or team is internationally recognized;

  • A written statement from a member of the sports media or other recognized expert outlining how the athlete or team is internationally recognized;

  • Evidence that the alien is highly ranked if the sport uses a ranking system; and

  • Evidence that the alien or team has received a significant award for performance.

Approval is based on a comprehensive analysis of these materials, which makes the burden on the sponsoring organization practically non-existent in ensuring that their players are in valid status. Under the circumstances, it would be extraordinarily rare for any allegations of immigration fraud to hold water at the professional level.

With the government on notice with every petition filed, the petitioning athletics organizations are responsible for ensuring that the foreign beneficiaries do not overstay their visas, as they would then be liable for the unlawful employment of an alien worker. Overall, the penalties are swift and significant, thus prompting the sponsoring organizations in most cases to hire competent legal counsel as well as implementing a “tickler” system in most cases to ensure that they are always in compliance.

The college world is similarly situated since the establishment of the National College Athletic Association (NCAA) to monitor immigration compliance with its student athletes. In particular, the NCAA established the Eligibility Center to check the credentials of its incoming international student athletes which must be approved before they are matriculated into their respective collegiate teams under a valid F-1 student visa.

Moreover, the International Student Records Committee was established nearly 25 years ago, which developed a set of international academic and regulatory standards for each of the 180 different countries. These standards are continually updated as education and immigration policies evolve to ensure the integrity of the collegiate athletic world and the booming influx of student athletes who must be in strict compliance with Federal Regulations.

Notably, as part of a recent change in administration, prospective student-athletes are now asked to answer several questions designed to find out if they violated any international playing rules in their career. Shockingly, almost 90% were found to have committed some kind of violation by the NCAA Eligibility Center—all of which must be appropriately disclosed to Immigration in advance of enrollment and admittance onto the team roster.

For the rest of us, the myriad of intramural organizations across the country welcomes participants of all ages and nationalities. At this level, athletics are not viewed as a “business” to strictly regulate. Rather, they tend to take on a much more social element, with individuals simply looking to stay active and try their best to mimic what they see on television (See “Lebron James - Chalk Toss” and/or “Tebowing”). Playing for nothing more than the love of the game and matching t-shirts, the policing of these leagues are relatively minimal—most often only requiring its participants to pay nominal membership fees, sign waivers against liability for injuries, and, to be of a certain age given the usual post-game activities.

For example, in NYC Social Sports Club, one of New York’s largest intramural organizations for people of all ages, the response to inquiries regarding illegal immigrants was, “So?” (We could ask, “But why?”). With a mission statement of creating a fun, positive social atmosphere and staying active, the emphasis for NYC Social Sports Club and many other like it is on fitness and community building, rather than stringent regulation of sporting events. The key issue here is that the people joining these teams are not “employees” seeking to derive financial benefit.

As a result, our nation’s immigration laws are virtually inapplicable in this situation, as liability only exists for those entities which have “hired” foreigners for financial gain. Thus, since no American workers are being displaced, the freedom to play remains untouched. However, should a disgruntled player or parent be wary of another’s immigration status, the responsibility lies exclusively with the federal governing authorities like Immigration and Customs Enforcement to investigate the issue further.

Until then, play ball!

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