Amateur or Professional?
What,exactly, is the difference between an amateur and a professional in skating? Well, that answer is a lot muddier now than it used to be. Actually, the better question today is, what is the difference between "eligible" and "non-eligible"?
It used to be simple. If you took money for teaching or performing you were a pro. If you didn't, you were an amateur. But now, "amateurs" can receive money for teaching or competing under certain circumstances. Some "pros" can compete. Sometimes pros and amateurs can compete against each other… Go figure !!
The exact rules are complicated, so go get a Rulebook to get the details, and don't take the simplified information here as "complete" -- it's just a summary of some of the high points (without all the exceptions and special cases!)
If you are thinking about doing anything that might put your eligibility into question, then carefully read the "ER" (Eligibility Rules) and "SR" (Sanctions Rules) sections of the most current USFSA Rulebook.
In the new terminology, an "eligible" skater is a skater who has honored all the rules of the USFSA and ISU, and is eligible to participate fully in the activities of the USFSA. This includes competing in USFSA sanctioned competitions, test sessions, and the right to hold office or appointed positions within the USFSA. Under certain circumstances, eligible persons may receive pay for teaching, compete in USFSA-sanctioned competitions which offer prize money, and earn some other forms of financial gain. An "eligible" skater is what would have once been called an "amateur".
An "ineligible" skater is a skater who has lost eligibility by performing an action not permitted under the rules. Ineligible skaters may not compete in most USFSA sanctioned competitions or the Olympics, however they may test, and in minority numbers may serve on the Board of Directors of USFSA clubs. Ineligible skaters may compete in "professional" competitions and in some ISU or USFSA sanctioned competitions designed especially for professionals or mixed professionals and amateurs.
Under the current rules, eligible skaters are allowed to teach skating for pay. Skaters who taught for pay prior to May 18, 1997 (ER 3.03) however are considered INELIGIBLE. Skaters who are thinking about starting to teach should obtain a Rulebook and carefully consider the provisions of the ER and SR sections, and those under 18 should carefully consider the implications of any "child labor" laws in their state.
Eligible skaters SHOULD NOT SKATE IN ANY competition, ice show, carnival, performance, or exhibition which is not sanctioned. To do so may cause loss of eligibility. Do not figure skate in "half-time exhibitions" at hockey games. Note that because of the cooperative agreements between USFSA and ISI, USFSA skaters are allowed to skate in competitions or shows which are sanctioned by the ISI. Usually the rink which holds the show or competition will ask you to get a permission form signed by your own club (to verify your membership in the USFSA).
Eligible skaters SHOULD NEVER ACCEPT PAY FOR PERFORMING (directly or indirectly) without consulting the Rulebook or the USFSA to verify that the particular circumstances involved will not impact the skater's eligibility.
Just to complicate matters a little bit further, some ineligible skaters may apply to the USFSA for "reinstatement", which makes them become "eligible" again. Applications for reinstatement are reviewed twice annually by the Sanctions Committee, and must be approved by the Board of Directors.
A note about "Professional Competitions"
With the current great public popularity of figure skating, the number of professional competitions and shows has blossomed tremendously. It's difficult to find a week that doesn't have some kind of skating event on television.
Because most "professionals" fall outside the control of the USFSA or any other governing body, the producers of these competitions or shows are pretty much free to set them up according to whatever rules they please. That's why you see so many unusual or normally "illegal" elements in pro competitions. It's why you see such a wide range of different formats for events. It's why the judging is sometimes done on a 10-point scale or by other unusual systems. It's why judges are sometimes media personalities or other non ISU-qualified judges.
The ISU and its member organizations (such as the USFSA) have recently begun to organize and sanction several competitions which cater to the TV market, and allow both ineligible ("pro") and eligible ("amateur") skaters to compete under more relaxed, but at least consistent, rules. These competitions also provide elite eligible skaters additional financial incentive to remain "eligible".