When Sports and the Law Collide

Posted on Aug 22, 2016 in Blog Entry: Spinning the Law

When most of us catch the game on TV, we aren’t really thinking about all the legal issues surrounding sports. We’re just hoping to unwind with our favorite team.

In reality, however, the law extends into athletics just as much as anywhere else. For sports-loving, would-be lawyers, that makes for a great opportunity. After all, someone has to represent those players, team owners, concession stand workers, administrators, and others when problems arise.

In his description of life as a sports lawyer, professor, and director of the National Sports Law Institute, Matthew J. Mitten recounts a variety of cases he’s dealt with: representing a county during litigation surrounding an NFL club’s relocation; providing legal advice to a baseball player wanting to level a medical malpractice suit at his former team; and more than one situation sparked by intellectual property law.

Mitten’s tasks run the gamut from registering trademarks to providing information about liability. He’s served sports physician organizations, coaches, referees, sports facility operators, sports broadcasters, and more. He’s had to delve into his knowledge in a variety of areas of law, including contract, labor, and intellectual property law.

Sports law isn’t just for professional teams, either. Schools—both high schools and colleges—face legal issues as well. Here are just a few in recent times:

  • College athletes wanting to unionize. The National Labor Relations Board was faced with a case involving Northwestern University scholarship football players wanting to unionize back in 2014. While initially finding in favor of the athletes, the Board stated the following year that they would not uphold their previous decision. An appeal to federal courts is still a possibility.
  • Title IX and gender equity. Schools across the country struggle to keep up with complaints regarding Title IX issues, particular in terms of offering equal opportunities to both boys and girls when it comes to sports. Since the mid-90s, there have been about 125-150 complaints regarding Title IX infringement filed with the OCR, with half going to settlement and half ending up in federal courts.
  •  Serving athletes with disabilities. Since the Disabilities Education Act, schools across the country have made an effort to make athletics available to students with disabilities, with varying results. In 2013, the United States Department of Education, under Arne Duncan, released a statement on schools’ legal responsibilities to provide for disabled students when it comes to athletics. Schools are required to either allow disabled students to participate with their peers or else provide participation opportunities through adapted programs.

As sports law continues to develop, it provides an opportunity for those interested in a variety of both legal and athletics studies to find the places where these two areas intersect. There are plenty of situations requiring legal advice to keep the international delight with sports moving along in a fair and equitable way. Sports lawyers and others serving the athletics industry are key to making it easy for anyone to sit down and enjoy watching the game—not to mention playing in it.