More than a game
Law school helps students study the legal side of sports
For a pro sports team to be successful, it needs talented attorneys to go along with great athletes and innovative coaches. A new student group and course are helping University of Iowa law students who want to pursue careers in the field.
The College of Law recently started offering its Sports Law class again after several years’ hiatus, when the students approached professor Nicholas Johnson about teaching it. “When you encounter students who want to learn about something, a professor should oblige,” Johnson says.
Meanwhile, a new student group—the Sports Law Society—was formed and has more than 50 members who are interested in the issue at some level, mostly as a possible career path.
Johnson says that unlike many law courses, sports law requires an understanding of law across the fields. There’s the obvious, such as contract, labor, and intellectual property. Then there's the less obvious. For instance, securities law and criminal law are factoring into the woes currently faced by the New York Mets, whose owner was bilked out of millions by Bernard Madoff. And family law dictated the future of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who were caught up in a bitter divorce battle between the team's owner and his wife.
“It’s an application of every course in the law school curriculum, only in this case it applies to professional sports,” Johnson says.
Sports and law was not a natural connection for most fans until Curt Flood put law on the sports page in 1969, when he sued to stop his trade from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood argued that baseball’s contracts were an unconstitutional restraint of trade because the reserve clause built into every major league player’s contract gave team owners the right to determine what team he would play for.
Flood eventually lost his lawsuit, but it set in motion a series of events that led to free agency for all professional athletes, turning pro sports from a million-dollar business into a billion-dollar business. With so much more money at stake, teams and leagues hired more and more attorneys to protect it.“Everything is law in sports administration,” says Ki Park, a second-year law student taking Johnson’s class and a co-founder of the Sports Law Society. “Most commissioners are lawyers; agents are lawyers. I interned at the PGA Tour, and more than half of the its executives are lawyers whether legal work is required of their job or not.”