Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2011 | In Class

Sports in the Courts

By Shelbi Thomas

Student demand leads to a comprehensive course on athletics and the law.


Football fans used to pour through these stadium gates, energized to root for their gridiron heroes in America's favorite game. But now, padlocks adorn the gates. Tens of thousands of seats remain empty. The dripping showerhead in the locker room is the only sign of the life that once invigorated this abandoned football arena.

These scenes appear in a hard-hitting TV ad campaign by the NFL Players Association that vividly portrays the sad spectacle of stadiums shut down by a dispute this spring between team owners and players. With the upcoming season in jeopardy, fans shudder at the thought of losing their sacred fall pastime. In the TV campaign ads, the athletes offer one message: "Let us play."

University of Iowa students in lecturer Nicholas Johnson's "Sports Law" course know a resolution won't come easily. Professional football has become the nation's most profitable sport, and-with billions of dollars at stake-everyone wants a piece of the pie. In this new UI class, students examine the role that lawyers play in resolving such contract disputes, as well as the countless other ways that law impacts the sports industry.

An elective in the UI College of Law, "Sports Law" developed out of a chance meeting in an elevator. Between floors last year, Johnson chatted with secondyear law student Chris Blanco, who shared his ambition to manage a professional football team. Johnson recalled a sports law class taught several years ago at Iowa, which sent Blanco and fellow second-year law student Ki Park on a mission to reinstate the course.

Few universities offer opportunities in sports law, but Blanco and Park resolved to create such learning experiences at Iowa. Last year, the duo founded the Sports Law Society, a student organization designed to help interested Hawkeyes network with sports law professionals. Members have hosted guest speakers, participated in charity sports events, and visited administrators at the Indiana Pacers and the NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. Park, a South Korean who claims he learned English by watching sports, says, "We want to learn how [sports law attorneys] got in the door, because those are the people we want to be."

Blanco and Park also wanted to be the ones to bring back Iowa's "Sports Law" course. Starting with the 50 members of the Sports Law Society, the pair collected signatures of law students in favor of the class and presented the petition to the dean. Then they approached Johnson to teach the course. "Rarely do professors encounter students so eager to learn something," says Johnson, "so when they are, I'm obliged to respond."

Taught this past spring, "Sports Law" covers contract, labor, and intellectual property law issues, such as sports merchandising, broadcast rights, and player contracts, associations, and endorsements. It also addresses violence, drugs, and the treatment of women in sports. In addition, the class explores whether leagues violate antitrust laws by restraining competition outside their teams. Students also discover the unexpected ways in which law and athletics can intersect. There's the New York Mets owner who lost millions in Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme (securities and criminal law), or the Los Angeles Dodgers owner mired in an ugly divorce (family law). At the high schoollevel, legal implications can arise when students are injured. College football raises questions about whether players should be paid for their hard work and effort. Blanco, a research assistant for Johnson, says, "You can teach the entire law school curriculum through sports, because it touches so many different areas of law."

The class's far-reaching applications give new students an introduction to essential legal doctrine, while offering veterans a review of material previously covered. Of course, a love of sports initially draws students to the course. Johnson says, "They're affected by the glamour of [a sports law career], just like people go out for sports with visions of playing for the pros."

Students quickly learn to distinguish the illusion from reality, as Johnson challenges them to analyze legal issues, raise public policy questions, and craft convincing arguments. "[The assignments are] not like reading ESPN the Magazine," says Park. "They're still legal studies. The only difference is that sometimes I can picture the plaintiff and defendant."

A few decades ago, sports law was virtually unknown as an area of practice. Since then, professional sports have ballooned into a lucrative industry, with TV networks paying billions of dollars for broadcast rights to the games. Last year, Super Bowl advertisers forked out $3 million for a 30-second spot. As the money began rolling in, players sought more compensation through free agency, while teams and leagues hired more attorneys to protect their earnings. Today, nearly every major law firm in the country has a sports division.

The legal issues covered in "Sports Law" are now as relevant as headlines ripped from the front page. Should Renée Richards, a tennis player born a man, compete in women's tournaments? Was Nike's decision to stand by its contract with disgraced golfer Tiger Woods a good business move? What legal ramifications could homerun hitter Barry Bonds face for allegedly taking steroids?

The class used the recent NFL lockout as an opportunity to hone skills in negotiating, legal analysis, and presentation. Students broke up into groups representing the various interests of players, owners, and fans. After closed group strategizing sessions, they reconvened to share their arguments. Players explained their decision to decertify their union to file an antitrust suit against the league; owners defended their right not to share financial information with players; and fans expressed frustration at holding season tickets for games that may never be played.

Though students didn't come to a resolution by the end of the class period, all agreed on one point: the game must go on. "It's not like anyone's being thrown into poverty, because this is millionaires negotiating with billionaires," says Johnson. "There's $9 billion on the table."

At a time when sports agents are demanding that the NFL show players the money, not all sports law students aspire to become the next Jerry Maguire. The sports agent career is but one of countless possibilities in the field. Owners, leagues, fans, TV networks, merchandising companies, and cities with professional sports teams also need lawyers.

Regardless of how students use their legal education, Johnson aims to mold them into creative problem-solvers. Park plans to use this skill to launch a sports TV network in South Korea. "I've learned to think like a lawyer," he says, "and that legal thinking will carry on to whatever industry I end up in."