After many years of hoping to attend the Sports Lawyers Association (SLA) Annual Conference, this year was the first time that I actually made it to the event. In the past, there were always conflicts with my schedule (a couple of times I was in Israel when the event was held). I picked a good year to start attending, as the 2011 conference broke an SLA record with regards to attendance; over 670 lawyers and law students with an affinity for Sports Law were stationed in Washington D.C. for the excellent panels and endless networking.
The entire event took place at the Renaissance Washington, D.C. Downtown Hotel. It was sufficiently staffed, nicely decorated, and what is absolutely most important for this type of conference – it ran on-time. But there were at least a couple of no-shows. The panel titled, “Latest Development in Professional Sports Collective Bargaining” was supposed to be a discussion between Jeff Kessler (Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP) and Bob Batterman (Proskauer Rose LLP), moderated by my good friend Gabe Feldman (Associate Professor of Law and Director, Sports Law Program, Tulane University). Understandably, Kessler and Batterman did not show for the panel, as they have to be careful about what is said with regards to the NFL Lockout. The hole was filled well by Gary Roberts (Dean and Professor of Law, Indiana University School of Law [Indianapolis]) and Mark Levinstein (Partner, Williams & Connolly LLP). Other than that, my only problem was that I arrived to no welcome package. I had to wait about an hour to get the conference materials, but no big deal!
Gary Roberts kicked off the event with a fantastic wrap-up of almost every type of case and issue from the past year that had/has any relation to Sports Law. The amount of focus on the NFL Lockout in this wrap-up and future panels was unsurprising. Following that wrap-up was a panel on Media, Publicity, Fantasy Sports & Privacy Rights for Athletes. Among the items discussed included the huge disparity between males and females with regards to participation in fantasy sports (93% of participants are male), right of publicity vs. first amendment rights, and some thought that courts are now favoring protection of first amendment freedoms over publicity rights. The male:female ratio at SLA was not as bad as the fantasy sports disparity; maybe closer to 80% male.
The next panel was “Legal Impact of Agent Interference in Intercollegiate Athletics.” I paid very close attention to the discussion between Anthony Agnone (President, Eastern Athletic Services), Rachel Newman Baker (Director of Agent, Gambling & Amateurism Activities, NCAA), Michael J. Powell (Managing Attorney, Office of the Secretary of State), and Allison Rich (Sr. Associate Athletic Director, Florida State University). It was great to have Michael Powell on the panel, since his state recently made headlines for the bill its House and Senate just passed, which will allow a Texas state court to put a sports agent in prison for 10 years based on a violation of the bill (if it becomes law). However, Powell tacitly admitted that his state selectively enforces its athlete agent laws. While it is technically illegal to reach out to a student-athlete in Texas without being registered as an athlete agent with the state, his office will only tell the agent that such conduct is impermissible and that the agent must be registered. But then why make it illegal in the first place? What exactly is the harm of communication? Further, when I asked Mr. Powell to justify why his athlete agent law provides potential criminal and civil liability for the sports agent who provides the benefit to the student-athlete, but does not hold the student-athlete accountable civilly or criminally for accepting the benefit, he could not provide any justification. Allison Rich suggested that student-athletes are protected by Agent Days and that they should become more common around the country. I disagree. We are all ignorant if we believe that any student-athlete with a glimmer of hope of being drafted will not speak to an agent prior to a scheduled school Agent Day. And why should student-athletes wait until those Agent Days, often scheduled in Spring just prior to graduation, to start discussions with agents who will potentially hold extreme power over the athletes’ futures?
The first day of the 2011 SLA wrapped up with a Town Hall Debate on the current state & legality of the college BCS system, moderated by Gabe Feldman. The second day started with a panel on “Ethics for Sports Lawyers,” which ended up focusing heavily on sports agent issues. One interesting discussion was based on the ethics behind representing coaches and players, management and players, and multiple players on the same team/position, along with the proper way of notifying all clients of the potential conflicts ahead of time. At one point in time, it felt as though I was sitting through my 1L Professional Responsibility class, learning all the Model Rules of Professional Conduct. But it certainly was not as bad, plus I was able to use my iPad (which my Professional Responsibility professor would not have permitted). Michael Powell was on this panel, and spoke more about his state of Texas. In the past, Texas was one of the few states that allowed business to be certified as agents. That will be no more with the new law that is expected to be signed soon. A very telling statement by Powell was, “The UAAA (Uniform Athlete Agents Act) says the states are all supposed to cooperate regarding agent regulation. We are just starting now.” Increased communication between states investigating the same agents could turn out to be very helpful for the states involved. Hal Biagas (Executive Vice President, Wasserman Media Group) mentioned that it is near impossible for small agents/agencies to comply with state athlete agent laws. He said that you need clients to be successful, but that it is extremely difficult to recruit those clients if you are paying all of the fees associated with the compliance with state athlete agent laws. Michael Powell said that he cannot understand how a lawyer with a very active practice can also find the time to be a successful agent. Based on Powell’s and Biagas’ statements, it does not seem to be a profession with its doors wide open for new entrants!
The SLA Luncheon was probably my favorite part of the entire event. The food was great, but the speech was even better. Ted Leonsis (Owner, Washington Capitals and Washington Wizards) captured the audience’s attention with stories that included a recent pizza delivery where the delivery boy thanked Leonsis for a generous tip, but responded by telling Leonsis that he hopes the Capitals do not choke again next year. I am fascinated by Leonsis, because he is probably one of the few owners who actually understands the importance of technology and making his teams’ fans feel as though they are a part of the game. It certainly does not help that he has a storied past with AOL.
Perhaps even better than the Luncheon was the networking. I was finally able to meet many people who I have spoken to over the years since starting this website. I thank each and every one of you for the kind words and hope that you continue to be a part of this site.
I will not go into too much detail about the break-out sessions, but hopefully the Teaching Sports Law session will help me as I begin to teach at Indiana University Bloomington in the Fall. I look forward to hopefully attending SLA in 2012 in San Diego, California. Until then, be ethical, successful, and tell someone on the SLA executive committee to turn down the air. I’m still shivering.