Fifteen-year-old tennis prodigy Cori “Coco” Gauff is proving that extraordinary talent can outweigh inexperience. Her success also raises questions about inflexible age eligibility rules in professional sports.
The Georgia native recently became the youngest player in the “Open Era”—a period that began in 1968 when Wimbledon and the other Grand Slam tournaments permitted pro players to compete—to qualify for a Wimbledon singles draw. She’s also the youngest women in the Open Era to qualify for a Grand Slam tournament main draw.
On Monday, Gauff defeated five-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams, 39, in the first round of the tournament. She followed it up by beating Magdalena Rybarikova in straight-sets to reach the third round, meaning she will earn at least $139,000 for her efforts.
Despite not being old enough to obtain a driver’s license or to hold many types of jobs, Gauff has been on the tennis world’s radar for several years. She made her professional debut last year, at age 14, and won the French Open juniors. Gauff resides in Delray Beach, Fla., and trains with famed coach Gerard Loglo at the New Generation Tennis Academy in Sarasota. Her mother, Candi, is a former teacher who homeschools Gauff. Her father, Corey, is a former D1 men’s basketball player at Georgia State. He coaches Cori.
Gauff is regarded as a generational talent and a highly-marketable one, too. Thus far in her nascent career, Gauff has earned $75,011 in prize money—while that’s going to increase steeply after Wimbledon and her subsequent successes, it’s still vastly more money than other children her age earn caddying or lifeguarding over the summer…but nowhere near the earnings of top ranked women players. For example, since the world’s No. 2 ranked player, 21-year-old Naomi Osaka, turned pro shortly before her 16th birthday, she has earned $11.4 million in prize money. Yet Gauff has substantially supplemented her income through lucrative endorsement deals. She has signed a multiyear contract with New Balance as well as deals with Head and Barilla. According to Forbes’ Kurt Badenhausen, Gauff projects to earn about $1 million in endorsements this year alone.
Gauff and the WTA’s Eligibility Rule
Gauff’s rise to stardom as a tween and teenager brings to mind fellow Floridian Jennifer Capriati, who in 1990 turned pro at age 13 and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated that same year.
Though she had ups and downs, Capriati went on to 14-year career during which she earned more than $10 million in prize money, along with additional millions from endorsements. She was ranked #1 in the world in 2001, the same year she won both the French Open and the Australian Open. Capriati, now 43, was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame seven years ago.
Gauff didn’t have the same opportunity to turn pro at 13. In 1994, the Women’s Tennis Association—the organization that governs women’s professional tennis—adopted an eligibility rule that set the age floor to 14. This rule, a current version of which appears as Rule XV in the WTA Rulebook, also limits the number of available tournaments for players who are between the ages of 14 to 17. While there are opportunities to play in additional tournaments if a player qualifies or if the prize money is relatively low, the baseline restriction is set as follows: a 14-year-old player can play in up to eight professional tournaments before her 15th birthday; a 15-year-old can play in up to 10 professional tournaments; a 16-year-old can play in up to 12 professional tournaments; and a 17-year-old can play in up to 16 professional tournaments. Further, the WTA rulebook prohibits a player from being named a “Top 10 player” until the year of her 17th birthday. Only players who are at least 18 can enjoy full eligibility as pros.
But there are some rules in place for a situation like Gauff's. Because of her success, she has earned a merit-based increase in the number of events she can play before her 16th birthday. She has already played seven professional events since turning 15, so under normal circumstances, she would only get to play in three more before she turns 16 on March 13, 2020. But because she won the French Open juniors and reached a high enough ITF junior ranking, she can play in an additional two. So Gauff can play in five more professional events before next March 13. Should she complete other rquirements, she could earn two more, bringing her 15-year-old total to 14. Gauff's father has stated his intent to have the rule change to allow her to play in even more events.
The WTA eligibility rule was crafted in part as a response to Capriati’s early struggles with fame and maturity. Although Capriati reached the semifinals of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1991, and won a Gold Medal at the 1992 Summer Olympics, she experienced burnout by 1993. She then took a break from tennis in 1994 and 1995.
The WTA, of course, considered more than the troubles of a single player in reaching the decision to impose an industry-wide rule. To that end, the WTA invested considerable resources in studying the merits and drawbacks of instituting an age limit. This area of study relied on the WTA’s “Age Eligibility Commission,” which was chaired by acclaimed sports medicine expert Carol Otis, M.D.
The commission weighed recommendations from medical professionals, psychological experts and behavioral scientists who had assessed how turning pro as a teenager tends to impact length of career as well as both physical and emotional well-being. Guided by the commission’s findings, the WTA concluded that players should be able to turn pro between the ages of 14 and 17 but with significant restrictions that would limit opportunities for prize money and rankings advancement.
Mindful of how a change in eligibility would impact players who had relied on a less restricted system for eligibility, the WTA exempted players who would turn 14 in 1995 and who had contemplated turning pro. Those players included Williams, Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova, all of whom turned pro at 14 and went on to long and productive careers.
Eligibility rules in other sports and entertainment professions
The WTA is but one of many professional sports associations that has wrestled with age eligibility issues.
The ATP, which governs men’s tennis, has adopted an eligibility rule and, like the WTA and its rule, linked it to age. Under 7.02 of the ATP Tour Rulebook, men’s players must be at least 14 years old. The rule also limits the number of tournaments a 14- or 15-year old player can play in, with a cap of eight tournaments for 14-year-olds and 12 tournaments for 15-year-olds. The ATP allows players 16 and up to play in an unlimited number of tournaments whereas, as noted above, the WTA offers that right only to players who are at least 18.
Other professional sports associations handle eligibility in divergent ways. Take soccer, which eschews age-based eligibility altogether and instead adopts a decidedly market-based approach.
To illustrate, Major League Soccer’s collective bargaining agreement with the MLS Players’ Association does not contain an eligibility rule or any age requirement. Stated differently, MLS lets “supply and demand” dictate when a player is old enough to join MLS: if there is sufficient market interest in him at a young age, he is good enough to join at that time.
This is why, in 2004, D.C. United could sign Freddy Adu at age 14 and why the Chicago Fire recently signed 14-year old Gabriel Slonina of Addison, Ill. MLS’s willingness to permit young players also reflects the fact that MLS competes with pro soccer leagues in other parts of the world. Those leagues have included players as young as 12. These same points are also true with respect to women’s professional soccer. Olivia Moultrie, an American soccer player from California, recently turned pro at age 13.
The NFL, NBA and WNBA approach the issue of eligibility and age from a very different lens. As contained in their respective collective bargaining agreements, those leagues require that players spend a period of time after high school engaged in some other activity, be it attending college or playing in another pro league, before becoming eligible. Even if a player is clearly skilled enough to enter earlier and sign with a team, that player is barred from doing so.
More specifically, the NFL requires that players be three years removed from high school, which usually means the player has finished his junior year or redshirt sophomore year of college. The NBA requires that players be 19 years old plus, if they are a U.S. player, and one year out of high school (as I discussed in a recent Sports Illustrated article, the NBA and National Basketball Players’ Association are expected to lower the age limit).
Meanwhile, the WNBA requires that U.S. players be at least 22 years old, college grads, or their original class from a four-year college must be set to graduate. Yet for international players, the WNBA recognizes their eligibility so long as they are at least 20 years old. The sharp disconnect between the WNBA’s treatment of U.S. and international players reflects the fact that there is no equivalent system of college sports—or the related concept of “amateurism”—in other parts of the world and the fact that talented basketball players outside of North America turn pro as young as 14 (and thus become ineligible under NCAA amateurism rules).
Major League Baseball (for U.S. players, eligibility out of high school; for international players, earlier), the NHL (eligibility at age 18), the PGA Tour (eligibility at 18 but can play in tournaments earlier if certain conditions are met), the LPGA Tour (eligibility at 18 but can play in tournaments as young as 15 if certain conditions are met) and NASCAR (varies by series and division but no requirement to be older than 18) also have eligibility requirements linked to age and/or experience. However, none of them—like the NFL, NBA and WNBA—requires that a player satisfies a period of time after high school before becoming eligible.
The entertainment industry goes the way of professional soccer: age limits interfere with the free market. Entertainers can “turn pro” at a time of their own choosing with parental consent. There are, obviously, children actors and children musicians who earn considerable income through their talents. Some of them will “age out” and become less marketable as adults, meaning they need to ply their trade while they are still young. The Screen Actors Guild represents young performers and provides important legal information to them, including on legal issues pertinent to their parents and guardians.
Young actors and musicians also need not worry about forfeiting NCAA eligibility by turning pro. There is no NCAA-like entity for college students who are also professional actors and musicians. To illustrate, Mary-Kate Olsen studied acting at NYU after she and her twin sister, Ashley Olsen, built what The New York Times described as a “$1 billion retail empire” financed in part through millions earned from acting roles.
Reasons in favor of age eligibility rules in pro sports
There are numerous considerations when evaluating the merits of eligibility rules that are tied to age, experience or education.
From the standpoint of sports leagues, their chief interest is in maximizing business operations and resulting profits. Leagues do not want players who are so young and inexperienced that they diminish the underlying product and turn off fans and consumers. In that same vein, most professional sports, especially contact sports, are generally thought of as adult activities; to have “children” playing among pros can undermine marketing campaigns.
Leagues and franchise owners also wish to spend wisely. They would rather not expend resources developing young players when other sports organizations can do it for them. Take the NFL. It is perhaps the greatest beneficiary of “big-time” college football. By playing college football, particularly in a major conference, college football players gain considerable experience as well as improve their skills and size. This occurs at no expense to the NFL or to its owners—universities pick up the tab instead. This is why college football is a de facto, and cost-free, minor league for the NFL and a leading reason why the NFL does not have a minor league system.
In that same light, leagues would prefer that players join them when they are already proven stars and established names. This rationale is one reason why, despite the fact that three of the greatest players in NBA history—LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett—all went straight from high school to the NBA, the NBA pushed for adoption of the 19-year-old-plus-one-year-out-rule in 2006. NBA scouts have noted the difficulty of assessing 17- and 18-year-old players compete against high school competition. The league also benefits when new players already have brand recognition, something that high school players usually lack but that collegeplayers can gain in just one season (obvious example: Zion Williamson after his short but impactful time at Duke).
A bright-line age rule is also efficient and straightforward. If the WTA had to review petitions by individual players for exemptions from the rule, the WTA would need to promulgate new eligibility criteria and perhaps hire additional staff.
There are also important health and safety considerations. As detailed above, the WTA relied on experts who concluded that turning pro at 13 and being able to play a full tour schedule between the ages of 14 to 17 was, on average, detrimental to the player. It does neither the teenage player nor the WTA any good if she is not yet physically ready to play full-time or if she lacks the maturity to handle accompanying stress.
The WTA is not the only sports association to invoke player safety as a justification for a higher age eligibility rule. The NFL has raised this point before. In the early 2000s, Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett sued the NFL over the eligibility rule in an antitrust case (disclaimer: I was a member of the legal team representing Clarett). The NFL offered several reasons in support of its rule requiring that players be at least three years out of high school. They included that ineligible players—including those who had played two full seasons of college football and those who play positions, such as running back, where careers often prove short—tend to lack maturity and are more prone to injury. It’s worth noting that the XFL is expected to take a different view on this topic than the NFL. The XFL will allow players to enter the XFL possibly out of high school or after their freshmen year of college.
Reasons against age eligibility rules in pro sports
Perhaps the most compelling reason in opposition of age eligibility rules is that they are based on demographic assumptions about players in general and not knowledge about any one player.
To illustrate: it may be true, or at least a defensible proposition, that tennis players between the ages of 14 and 17 would be better off playing in fewer tournaments than players who are 18 or older. There may be sound, empirically-proven reasons for this position, including related to player health, maturity, and education needs.
However, that same proposition might prove untrue for certain players. Perhaps Gauff, given her extraordinary skills, apparent maturity and knowledgeable parents, is more than capable of excelling as a full-time pro at a young age. That appears to have been the case for Hingis, who, as mentioned above, was exempted from the 1994 rule change. At age 16, Hingis became the youngest player to be ranked No. 1 in the world. She also avoided any controversies while she was a teenager and into her mid-20s. However, in 2007, the ITF suspended Hingis, who was 27 at the time, due to a failed drug test (she had a small amount of a metabolite of cocaine in her system but denied ever using the drug; she had also passed drug tests in previous years).
An inflexible eligibility rule will prevent Gauff from playing in as many tournaments as she might otherwise prefer. The rule is thus poised to limit her potential prizes and exposure to companies that might offer her endorsement deals. Further, by denying her as many chances to play against older and more skilled players, the rule might potentially slow Gauff’s development as a player.
Another reason to oppose age eligibility rules is that while athletes in a given sport tend to peak within a certain age band, some peak early and some peak later. Hingis is a good example. Her best years in tennis occurred when she was a teenager, particularly when at 16, she won Wimbledon, the Australian Open and the U.S. Open. Although her career would last until she retired at 37, Hingis’s last Grand Slam singles championship occurred when she was 19. If Hingis had been restricted by the WTA’s eligibility rule, it’s possible that much of her career success would have never happened.
Risk of injuries is also a meaningful consideration with age restrictions. The WTA’s rule was designed in part to prevent injuries, particularly since young players should experience less “wear-and-tear” by playing in fewer tournaments. The counterargument is that injuries can happen anywhere, and every athlete is one play away from a career-ending injury—and the end of potential earnings as a result. Hingis is again a useful example. Many tennis experts believe that she never fully recovered from ankle problems that surfaced in her early 20s.
Lastly, age-based eligibility rules are highly paternalistic. They take the choice away from the young athlete and her or his family, who likely have more insight into the well-being of the athlete than do the designers of a rule. One could argue that basic fairness and merit should determine when a young person turns pro, and that soccer and the entertainment world have that calculus right.
A legal challenge against the WTA eligibility rule is possible, but seems unlikely
At this time, there is no reason to believe that Gauff or other teenage players will challenge the WTA’s eligibility rule in court. While Gauff’s opportunities for prize money and rankings advancement are limited by the rule, she can still earn considerable endorsement income.
However, if a legal challenge happens, the case would be brought under antitrust law (if brought in Europe, a case would invoke “competition law”, which is similar to antitrust law).
The specific area of antitrust law in a lawsuit would be Section 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Section 1 forbids unreasonable restraints on trade, including anticompetitive group boycotts and refusals to deal that adversely impact competition (for an excellent overview of these antitrust issues, see Ryan Rodenberg’s law review article titled, “Age Eligibility Rules in Professional Tennis”).
Here, the WTA could be seen as boycotting, to some degree, teenage players and refusing to deal with them. While the WTA’s rule might benefit these players in terms of reducing the risk of injury and tempering the accompanying stress and anxiety of tournament play, the rule also blatantly undermines competition.
This is true in at least two ways.
First, affected players are denied the chance to maximize their opportunities for tournament play. That outcome, in turn, reduces the players’ chances at winning prize money and gaining exposure for endorsement deals. The players are also robbed of additional opportunities to develop their skills against older, seasoned players in top tournament play. Women players would also point out that the ATP’s rule for men’s players is much less restrictive, which raises questions as to the merits of that difference.
Second, tennis fans—consumers, in the context of an antitrust lawsuit—are disadvantaged in the sense that they are not necessarily seeing the “best” players compete. They are seeing the “best” eligible players compete, a different and smaller subset of players.
In defense of its rule, the WTA would argue it is a reflection of comprehensive medical and empirical findings. This would help the WTA argue that it has promulgated a reasonable and efficient restraint on competition. The WTA would also be poised to insist that the rule enhances competition since it ensures that fans see more experienced and physically developed players. To the extent the WTA has regularly revisited the rule to confirm its continued validity, the stronger the legal position of the WTA.
Michael McCann is SI’s Legal Analyst. He is also an attorney and Director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law.