An Overview of Sports Law Practice

The Legal Needs of the Athletic Industry

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If, as a lawyer, you have handled contracts, business litigation, intellectual property, premises liability, antitrust matters, employment law, compliance, tax matters, labor law, or licensing, then you have also handled issues that tend to arise in the vibrant world of sports law. Perhaps you should contemplate the possibility of expanding your legal practice to include sports law.

Sports Lawyers Focus on the Industry

Sports law is a practice area focusing on a client’s industry rather than on the client’s category of legal needs (such as commercial litigation or estate practices).

Sports law can involve all sorts of different types of legal issues, like contracts, labor law, antitrust, tax, torts, compliance, intellectual property law, alternative dispute resolution, and even criminal matters (for instance, involving drugs or domestic skirmishes that have professional repercussions). It would be a rare lawyer who does not have some experience in at least one of those areas working with some sort of client; as such, getting a client who happens to be involved in the field of athletics is not such a far stretch.

As in other areas of the law, some sports lawyers focus more on making deals — negotiating with interested parties, putting together exhibition games, dealing with all of the commercial aspects of an event (like ticketing, broadcasting, merchandise licensing agreements, sponsorships, contracts) — while others might focus on different issues facing an athlete or an entity involved in the sports industry, like antitrust or employment law problems, torts litigation, or disability law matters.

Athletes get injured, their interests get injured, event-goers get injured, coaches get fired, referees make bad calls, players make bad life decisions, owners make bad decisions, agents make bad decisions. Given all of the opportunity to craft better deals and make better arrangements or to fix things up when sports business goes awry, it's no wonder a certain category of lawyers are making viable livings involving sports law.

Prospective Clients

Prospective sports law clients include associations and leagues (think National Basketball Association, National Football League, Major League Soccer, National Collegiate Athletic Association, National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, National Hockey League, United States Figure Skating Association,United States Golf Association, United States Tennis Association, and the like), team owners, colleges and universities with athletics programs, coaches, referees, players’ leagues (unions), agents, and, of course, players. A sports lawyer working on youth sports might also find she is representing the parents of the young athlete.

Isn’t It All Just a Game?

Here is just a sampling of some interesting litigation involving sports:

Players seeking protection: In DelBuono v. Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, 20 Mass. L. Rptr. 740 (Super. Ct. Worcester County 2006), two high school hockey players who had been disqualified from hockey games challenged their disqualifications by seeking to restrain the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association from enforcing those disqualifications. In denying the request for a temporary restraining order, a Massachusetts court noted that there is no constitutional right to participate in high school athletics.

Rules and fairness: In PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin, 532 U.S. 661 (2001), the Supreme Court of the United States determined that a disabled golfer who needed to use a golf cart to participate in golf tournaments was protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. NCAA rules for certain tournaments specified that players must walk a course and carry their own clubs.

Licensing and competition: American Needle, Inc. v. National Football League, 130 S. Ct. 2201 (2010) involved a dispute over licensing activities for team-labeled apparel. After American Needle’s non-exclusive license to manufacture and sell apparel with team insignias was not renewed, American Needle brought suit alleging that the National Football League, member teams, National Football League Properties (an entity the NFL created to manage its intellectual property for team-labeled apparel), and Reebok International Ltd., which had been granted an exclusive license to manufacture and sell trademarked team headwear, violated the Sherman Act, which places restrictions on contracts and conspiracies that restrain trade.

The NFL, the teams, and National Football League Properties argued that they are a single economic enterprise and are thus incapable of conspiring within the meaning of the Sherman Act. The Supreme Court of the United States held otherwise, indicating that the conduct at issue was concerted activity within the meaning of the Sherman Act.

Antitrust issues: Other suits are still making their way through the court system. For instance, in In re National Collegiate Athletic Association Athletic Grant-in-Aid Cap Antitrust Litigation, Nos. 14-md-2541 CW, C14-2758 CW, 2016 WL 4154855 (N.D. Calif. Aug. 5, 2016) (order denying motion for judgment on the pleadings), student-athletes have challenged restrictions on compensation for their athletic performances and maintain that these restrictions violate antitrust law. Likewise, challenges to NCAA rules barring payment for use of athletes’ names, images, and likenesses are also making their way through the judicial system in O’Bannon v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, 802 F.3d 1049 (9th Cir. 2015), petition for certiorari filed, 84 U.S.L.W. 3527 (Mar. 14, 2016) (No. 15-1167).

What Happens in the Locker Room and Beyond

Despite advances, compliance with employment laws is an area where sports lawyers can provide pertinent advice to their client team owners and others regarding what is acceptable and the steps that must be taken should inappropriate situations develop. Lawyers might help with training and with dealing with violators.

Athletes are not the only team employees who may be statutorily protected; remember that teams employ others as well, such as cheerleaders and managers and marketers and number crunchers (think about the memorable characters in Moneyball, Michael Lewis's book on the Oakland Athletics baseball team and the film of the same name that stars Brad Pitt).

Likewise, athletes and others involved in the industry can get into a bit of legal hot water that generates repercussions for them on the playing field and with respect to their employment arrangements. Here, too, is an opportunity for lawyers to provide assistance, either to a player or to the team owner, in dealing with such matters.

Sports law can be an incredibly interesting, dynamic, challenging area of the law for any lawyer (no matter how personally un-athletic he or she might be).