The Uncanny Sports Attorney

Namal Amaraweera

New attorneys who aspire to work in sports law often become engrossed in achieving that goal. For any sports fan, the allure of working in this field and being so closely aligned with a professional sports franchise or league make the sports law field highly desirable. What we sometimes overlook is what the position entails. Only two years into my legal career, I am (somehow) a sports lawyer. No, not as general counsel of an NBA team or in the legal department of the NFL. I am an attorney for a small, semi-professional basketball team in Chicago. The problems I encounter are quite standard in the legal industry; however the setting—working for a sports franchise—is what makes the position unique and gratifying.

I moved to Chicago after graduating from law school. When I initially arrived and began my job search, I was not looking for a position in sports. Positions as general counsel or in the legal department of a team or league are generally limited to well-experienced attorneys with exceptional credentials. As a new attorney, I qualified as neither. Notwithstanding that reality, I came across an ad for a sports team looking for an attorney to handle some part-time work for the team. I responded, and a week later I was hired as the Chicago Steam’s exclusive outside counsel—Chicago’s American Basketball Association affiliate basketball team. The Steam are more of a developmental league team. Most of its players find their way to either the NBA’s official D-League squads or sign professional contracts playing abroad.

My role with the organization is unique and has placed me in a far more advanced position than I could have ever hoped. My work product is diverse both in the types of work I engage in and the areas of law that I encounter. The Steam have contracts with all of their players and personnel. I often review these agreements, finding ways to improve them as a better defense to the organization. We recently came across an issue with personnel making improper purchases. I was surprised to discover that the purchasing power in their contracts was not limited. In fact, they were nonexistent. So I amended the agreements and created a system by which personnel could purchase necessary equipment for the team while also providing protection the organization against unauthorized or unnecessary purchases.

Most recently, I drafted an agreement for the team’s tour in China. This proved to be the most challenging project as attorney for the Steam. Since the counterparty was a foreign entity, issues of payment, forum selection, and health insurance became incredibly important. But through diligent research and an inherent knowledge of the game, I was able to successfully craft an agreement both parties could agree to. With the team, I also deal with typical representative matters in litigation and advise the organization on various business engagements.

The most rewarding aspect of the position is the access to the ownership and executives. I hope to someday be involved with decision-making related to the hiring of executives, crafting roles within the organization, and helping determine its future. My goal is to have a more tangible effect on the on-court product and assist the team in winning championships. Although I may not assume that role within this organization, my position with the Steam will surely act as a catalyst to whatever opportunities lie ahead.

However remote your goals are, be cognizant of the fact that the opportunity to achieve them may come in the form of something you did not initially consider. I always envisioned working in the sports law field on the grandest stage, yet I did not the value the prospect of working on a much smaller scale and how that could also provide valuable experience. Search for opportunities wherever they are and build your way to where you want to be. Obtain experience in as many areas of the law as you can, because it is certain you will come across legal problems in varying practice areas in this field.

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Namal Amaraweera

Namal Amaraweera is a young lawyer practicing sports law in Chicago, Illinois.