During December, I will be periodically blogging about a variety of sports law topics. Although sports-related legal issues frequently arise (almost daily) and interest the general public as well as lawyers, most people fail to appreciate the breadth and complexity of “sports law.” I recently wrote the following column on this topic for the December 2008 issue of The Young Lawyer, a newsletter published by the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division:
It is a common misperception that “sports law” is a narrow field populated primarily by lawyers representing professional athletes, sports leagues, or clubs who have specialized expertise in sports-specific laws. To the contrary, “sports lawyers” represent a wide variety of clients who need legal advice and representation that usually requires knowledge of several general areas of law.
Virtually every field of law regulates or is relevant to one or more aspects of youth, high school, college, Olympic and international, professional, or recreational sports.
The sports industry is vast in scope, has millions of athletes (but less than 10,000 U.S. major league and top level individual sport professional athletes) and spectators, and generates billions of dollars annually. In addition to amateur and professional players, coaches, referees and officials, leagues, national, regional, state, and local governing bodies, athletics administrators, educational institutions, and sports facility owners and operators are part of the sports industry. Broadly defined, this industry also encompasses sports broadcasters, playing equipment manufacturers, sports medicine care providers, businesses that sponsor athletic events or athletes, concessionaires who serve food and drink to fans at games, and others that provide sports-related goods and services.
It is debatable whether “sports law” (like cyber law or health care law) is a discrete area of law, or merely the application of many areas of general law to a unique industry. In the United States there is no direct government regulation of sports at any level of competition. There are few sport-specific federal or state laws, with the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, 36 U.S.C. §220501, et seq., and athlete agent statutes (adopted by more than 30 states) being notable exceptions. However, because of the unique features of sports competition such as the need for uniform rules and competitive balance, general laws often are applied differently to sports than to other social or business activities. For example, physical contact among participating athletes is an inherent part of the game, so tort law permits some on-field contact that would otherwise infringe a person’s legal rights. Similarly, because off-field cooperation in the form of rules and agreements among groups that produce or sponsor sports events is necessary to ensure competitive balance and an uncertain outcome that generates fan interest, antitrust law is applied differently than to the same conduct in other industries.
Although sports law courses are a relatively recent addition to the curriculum at most law schools, lawyers have practiced “sports law” for many years (many of whom, including me, never took a sports law course). However, several general courses I took as a law student, particularly antitrust, tort, and intellectual property law, provided a solid foundation of general knowledge enabling me to represent clients in several sports-related matters and to teach sports law. As a practicing lawyer who specialized in intellectual property law, I registered trademarks and copyrights on behalf of sports industry clients, provided advice regarding a trademark licensor’s potential legal liability for defective playing equipment manufactured by its licensee, and defended a restaurant in a copyright infringement suit for showing a “blacked out” NFL game to its patrons. As a law professor, I have represented Harris County, Texas, in litigation concerning the Houston Oilers NFL club’s relocation to Nashville, filed an amicus brief on behalf of two sports medicine physician organizations in an American With Disabilities Act suit by a college basketball player against Northwestern University, served as an expert witness in Title IX gender equity litigation, advised a golf club manufacturer about potential legal claims arising out of the decertification of its golf clubs, and provided legal advice in a major league baseball player’s medical malpractice suit against his former team.
Sports law is a very eclectic and interesting field, and lawyers representing sports industry clients must have expertise in several areas of law to represent their clients effectively. Counsel for professional leagues and clubs need general knowledge of contract, labor, private association, antitrust, tort, tax, and intellectual property law. Those representing professional athletes must be familiar with labor and employment, contract, federal and state tax, and worker’s compensation laws as well as the multiple layers of athlete agent regulation. It is essential for lawyers representing professional sports industry clients or those doing business with them to have strong contract negotiation and drafting skills. An understanding of the arbitration process is important because most employment-related disputes between professional athletes and the league or their respective clubs are resolved by mandatory arbitration. Representation of individuals, educational institutions, and governing bodies that are part of the youth, high school, college, or Olympic sports industries also requires broad knowledge of several areas of law including contract, private association, tort, and constitutional law (if the requisite “state action” exists) as well as arbitration (for Olympic sports).
Although sports lawyers have varied backgrounds, most of them did not obtain full-time employment with sports organizations or have a stable of sports industry clients upon graduation from law school. Rather, they gained legal knowledge, skills, and experience representing clients in other industries that has proven to be readily transferable and useful in serving the needs of sports industry clients or handling sports-related matters. Very few attorneys spend a majority of their time practicing sports law, but many lawyers perform professional services for one or more clients who are part of, or have dealings with, the sports industry.