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What Is Sports Law and Who Is a Sports Lawyer?

Matthew J Mitten

What Is Sports Law and Who Is a Sports Lawyer?
Evgenii Mitroshin via iStock

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When you think of a “sports lawyer,” do you envision a lawyer who represents only a narrow pool of high-profile clients, such as professional athletes, sports leagues, or sports clubs? On the contrary, “sports lawyers” represent a wide variety of clients who need legal advice and representation that usually requires knowledge of several areas of law.

In my career as a sports lawyer (and now a sports law professor), I provided legal advice in a major league baseball player’s medical malpractice suit against his former team. I represented Harris County, Texas, in litigation concerning the Houston Oilers NFL club’s relocation to Nashville. But I also have been involved in a wider array of sport-related matters, especially in the area of 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; defended a restaurant in a copyright infringement suit for showing a “blacked out” game to its patrons; filed an amicus brief on behalf of two sports medicine physician organizations in an Americans with Disabilities Act suit filed by a college basketball player against Northwestern University; and served as an expert witness in Title IX gender equity litigation.

Who Sports Lawyers Represent

As a sports lawyer, you might find yourself representing clients such as amateur and professional players; coaches, referees, and officials; leagues; governing bodies of the sports industry; athletics administrators; educational institutions; and sports facility owners and operators. Even more broadly, your representation might extend to sports broadcasters; sports equipment manufacturers; sports medicine care providers; businesses that sponsor athletic events or athletes; and concessionaires who serve food and drink to fans at games.

Areas of Law Involved in the Practice of Sports 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 US major league and top-level individual sport professional athletes) and spectators; and generates billions of dollars annually. In fact, it is debatable whether “sports law” (like cyber law or healthcare law) is actually a discrete area of law or merely the application of many areas of law to a unique industry.

Sports Lawyers Need Expertise in Several Areas

The eclectic nature of the sports law field requires sports lawyers to have expertise in several areas of law to effectively represent their clients. Sports law courses are a relatively recent addition to the curriculum at most law schools. Yet several courses I took as a law student, particularly antitrust, tort, and intellectual property law, provided me with enough general knowledge to represent clients in several sports-related matters and to teach sports law.

Counsel for professional leagues and clubs need a general understanding 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 law, as well as athlete-agent regulation. A sports lawyer must have strong contract negotiation and drafting skills to represent professional sports industry clients. An understanding of the arbitration process is also important because most employment-related disputes between professional athletes and leagues 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 contract, private association, tort, and constitutional law (if the requisite “state action” exists) and of 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 transferred to handling sports-related matters. Very few attorneys spend the majority of their time practicing sports law, but many lawyers perform professional services for one or more clients who are part of the sports industry.

What legal knowledge, skills, and experience have you acquired thus far that may be useful in practicing “sports law”?