The Intersection of Sports & Law

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This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Carolina Law.

For a field that some say doesn’t exist — sports law — Carolina Law prepares its students well. Carolina Law opens doors for students to build a career in sports law through externships in UNC’s Athletics Department, a joint degree program with Exercise and Sports Science (EXSS), opportunities to get involved in many aspects of the world class intercollegiate athletics activities on campus and access to helpful resources, including an EXSS professor who holds a joint appointment with the law school.

Professor Lissa Broome presents the 2015 Skip Prosser Award for Academics to UNC basketball star Marcus Paige. Photo by J.D. Lyon Jr./UNC Athletics.

Lissa Broome

Lissa Broome, a law professor and UNC’s Faculty Athletics Representative to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and this year’s president of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), says the foundation for success in the field comes from the legal training that teaches students to think critically, be ethical in the approach to situations, use good judgment and provide wise counsel to their clients. “That skill set is invaluable in this fast-paced, high-stakes world that athletics has become,” Broome says.

Athletics needs lawyers at any number of intersections, including antitrust, enforcement, compliance and contract law.

ANTITRUST : The NCAA and some conferences have been defendants in lawsuits brought by student-athletes, and those antitrust issues need to be sorted out. In October, the Supreme Court declined to hear the O’Bannon case that found an antitrust violation in capping the amount of a student-athlete’s scholarship. The Jenkins case raises the issue of the continuing legitimacy of an amateur model for college sports.

ENFORCEMENT : How does the NCAA enforce its rules? The NCAA has a large enforcement staff made up of many law school graduates, and universities need their own lawyers to defend against allegations. UNC’s Office of University Counsel represents the University with help on some occasions from attorneys from outside law firms.

COMPLIANCE : An employee within the athletics department of every school monitors the actions of the department, student-athletes and coaches to ensure that they are complying with NCAA rules. In many cases that person is trained as a lawyer. Attorneys also often work in athletics to make sure that the school is appropriately managing all risks associated with athletics.

CONTRACTS : At the conference level, large, complex TV contracts must be negotiated, such as the ACC’s recent contract with ESPN. At the school level, lawyers need to negotiate personnel contracts for athletics directors and coaches; apparel contracts, such as UNC’s agreement for Nike providing apparel and equipment to sports programs, and other ancillary media rights.

“At Carolina Law, we’re training critical thinkers and people who can absorb a lot of information, make sense of it, figure out what’s missing and what more needs to be collected,” Broome says. “Those competencies can be put to use in sports law and any other field.”

Meet some Carolina Law alumni who have made prominent careers in sports law.

Charlie Henn '98

Charlie Henn ’98

What does Carolina blue mean to you? And to whether you’ll spend money on a shirt in Carolina blue as opposed to another color? Does the shirt have anything else on it that telegraphs your interest in UNC that influenced your decision to buy, even if it doesn’t have the well-known interlocking logo on it? If so, is Carolina entitled to a portion of the profit the manufacturer makes on the sale of a shirt that might have been motivated by your fondness for the school?

Charlie Henn, an intellectual property and trademark attorney with Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton in Atlanta, considers these questions carefully, argues them thoroughly in court, and wins decisions for his clients.

“Organizations hire me when they are aware of someone infringing their rights,” Henn says. “I file a lawsuit and litigate it all the way through trial and sometimes all the way to the appellate courts.”

That’s part of what makes Henn’s work fun and interesting.

“I get to spend time meeting with and learning from non-lawyers about very practical things that we all encounter with brands and trademarks every day, but we don’t consciously think about,” he says.

Henn has litigated a number of cases for college and university athletic departments, enforcing their rights to their team colors, mascots and logos. He has done similar work for all of the professional sports leagues — the NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA. He has handled quite a few matters for Adidas, one of the largest athletics apparel providers in the U.S., involving its three-stripe trademark.

Trademark work often falls into one of two categories: two large companies disagreeing on which has the right to profit from a color combination, logo or other branding — he won the largest trademark award ever, $305 million for Adidas against Payless Shoes; and instances where the infringers are not known.

Recently, Henn sought relief for the Chicago Cubs from vendors selling counterfeit products outside Wrigley Field. The court allowed the Cubs to seize and impound the unauthorized product to prevent those vendors from getting rid of it.

Bringing suit against individuals making unauthorized sales online can be problematic.

“In the world of Internet sales, it’s sometimes hard to track down who’s doing the bad conduct,” he says. “You used to be able to go to a store and find the owner. Now you never know who’s behind the sale and where the product is made and how it’s getting into the country.”

Before deciding between UNC’s offer of a full-ride chancellor’s scholarship and well-known private law school that offered no financial assistance, Henn sought the advice of a junior partner in a law firm in his native Atlanta. Henn told the partner he wanted to be a trial lawyer, and the partner advised him to go to Carolina. By the time Henn completed his JD, the partner had become the hiring partner at Kilpatrick Townsend. Now Henn holds that position.

Henn credits Carolina Law for putting him on the path to success, if for no other reason than Carolina helped him secure a summer internship at Kilpatrick Townsend after his first year in law school. There, he was assigned to work on a matter for Adidas, and he returned to that when he was hired by the firm after graduation. He built his career from there.

“I was a lucky junior associate,” he says.

Pat Hobbs '85

Pat Hobbs ’85

In transitioning from a law school dean to the athletics director of a Division I school, Pat Hobbs says that the biggest difficulty is that “your decisions get scrutinized almost immediately by the media.” He certainly faced complex issues and made decisions that had far-reaching effects as dean of Seton Hall University School of Law, but no online publication posted six to eight articles every day on situations he contended with, as does on topics under his purview now that he is athletics director for Rutgers University.

And he has only been on the job for less than a year.

“Media scrutiny can be good in terms of marketing your program, but it can be challenging if you have things you’re trying to address and correct,” Hobbs says. “The challenge [of being athletics director] is greater than I thought. The opportunity is greater as well.”

Hobbs, a New Jersey native, came to Carolina because “it was the highest quality, most affordable legal degree opportunity I could get,” he says. He intended to study criminal defense law, but a course on taxation taught by Professor Patricia Bryan changed his mind. He told her he wanted to teach, and she mentored him, advising him to practice for a few years and get his LL.M. By 1990, he was on the faculty of Seton Hall’s law school.

He had always had an interest in sports, though the only college play he had was a pickup game with Michael Jordan in which he does not recall ever touching the ball. Even so, in 1998, when Hobbs was associate dean of the law school, Seton Hall’s president sought his counsel on rectifying problems with the school’s basketball team. The school made a coaching change and hired a new athletics director. Hobbs added to his responsibilities helping redevelop the men’s basketball program.

The following year, the school promoted Hobbs to dean of the law school. In 2004, when Newark, N.J., was considering whether to build a new hockey and basketball arena downtown, Hobbs chaired the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Downtown Redevelopment that ultimately led to the development of the Prudential Center, where the New Jersey Devils, Seton Hall and the New Jersey Nets played. That led to his service on the Devils’ board for a term.

When Seton Hall’s men’s basketball program faltered again in 2009, Hobbs stepped in as acting athletics director and revamped the athletics department.

While on sabbatical in 2015, after stepping down from the deanship, he got a call from Rutgers and within days was hired as its new athletics director. His first task was to hire a new football coach. Having a winning team matters because it drives revenue from ticket sales, sponsorship and donations. And that revenue funds non-revenue Olympic sports and scholarships. The bottom line benefits students, and interacting with students is Hobbs’ favorite part of the job.

“They bring athletic talent to the university, which has provided them with scholarships,” he says. “They’re very disciplined and committed, and they work hard. They know the vast majority of them will never go on to pro sports, so they’re here to get an education.”

Fundraising takes up a big part of Hobbs’ time. Right now he’s in the middle of a $100 million campaign. He engages legislators and the governor, officials whose policies have a big impact on every university.

“There’s always competition for dollars and not enough resources,” he says.

Hobbs puts his law degree to use every day on the many contracts he must negotiate and review: contracts for coaches, games and apparel, as well as policies and regulations, including Title IX compliance.

“The only thing I don’t spend time on is taxes, which is my training,” he says.

Jim Delaney '73

Jim Delany ’73

The Big 10 Conference distributes about a quarter billion dollars of financial aid to student-athletes every year. About 11 million fans come to Big 10 athletic competitions annually, and the conference produces some 1,400 telecasts each year through its TV network. Big 10 Commissioner Jim Delany knows better than anyone else: it all costs money.

“We need to be able to afford to do all the things we’re doing,” Delany says.

Delany was recruited to the Big 10 in 1989 after a decade as commissioner of the Ohio Valley Conference and four years with the NCAA Enforcement Division before that. He lettered in basketball at Carolina as an undergrad. Immersed in college sports for nearly half a century, he has ridden its growth trajectory and been in charge of handling the increasingly litigious environment. He does not practice law directly but has a number of lawyers who work for him to take on issues that range from antitrust law and labor law to Title IX concerns and basic transactions.

In the past 10 years, in particular, he has seen legal matters mushroom, from government and media affairs to the expanding complexity of technology. “In all aspects of society, there has been a profound change in how the public watches our events,” he says.

The Big 10 created the first conference TV network, and along with that comes all manner of social and digital applications. In addition, the Big 10 has licensing arrangements with CBS, ESPN and Fox. The conference also live-streams hundreds of events and stays current with social media.

“As the sports field changed and evolved, I had the enthusiasm and capacity to learn it and make a contribution to it,” he says.

Delany grew up in a family that valued education. His dad and sisters are teachers, and his father also coached. Delany and his siblings were taught to use both sports and education as ways to advance themselves. After he completed his undergraduate degree, he had the opportunity to play basketball professionally in Europe. He turned it down in favor of law school.

“I was able to take areas I was passionate about — education and athletics — and build a career.”

Law school taught him to analyze problems, parse options and form judgments, he says. Many transactions come across his desk in his work as commissioner, several dealing with technology and public affairs. Through his law degree, he also learned the language of law and a way of thinking and talking. He had many good professors who mentored him.

“They weren’t talking sports law, though,” he says. “They were talking contracts, property and constitutional law. I didn’t necessarily think how they might or might not be applicable to my future career.”

As commissioner, he makes decisions about how to manage litigation and the public affairs that goes along with those lawsuits, not to mention the legal fees. He also wrestles with issues such as the time demands on student-athletes, academic standards for eligibility and Title IX compliance. He must be ever vigilant about following federal laws and NCAA regulations, because noncompliance has a high price tag.

“Our schools are the recipients of $11 billion in federal research dollars,” he says. “Sports knows they have to comply with all the relevant federal laws because a huge amount of money is at stake.”

When Delany was a student-athlete, college was regional — most students lived within a couple hundred miles of home — it was male, and it was white. Today, it’s global and diverse. Some 115 Big 10 student-athletes competed in the Summer Olympics in Rio last August, representing more than 20 countries.

The number of young people in college sports totals close to half a million. Other than the military, no organization comes close to providing the opportunities that the NCAA does.

“This doesn’t exist in Africa or Asia or Europe,” Delany says. “It’s unique to America and does a lot of social good. It’s not about the ’1 percent.’ It’s a broad range of opportunities for a lot of people.”


Edgar Burch '02

Edgar Burch ’02

Edgar Burch, a lobbyist for the NCAA, says members of Congress and their staff are no different from any other sports fans. “They just have a much louder voice when addressing concerns within college athletics,” he says.

“They are in a position to ask questions and recommend changes to policy that could greatly impact the experience of the more than 40,000 student-athletes competing in college athletics each year.”

Burch’s career-long tenure with the NCAA began shortly after graduating from Carolina Law. The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation in Washington, D.C., told him about a fellowship at the NCAA. Despite having very limited exposure to the world of political lobbying, he was hired for the temporary position, which became permanent within the year, and he has been there ever since. Having mastered a steep learning curve, he now thrives among the competitive and well-educated policymakers in the nation’s capital.

Relationship-building is key to his work educating members of Congress, correcting misinformation and helping them see a broader perspective of college sports than only the major revenue generators. One incident at one school may impel elected officials to think that the problem is systemic and begin crafting legislation to control it. He sits in on congressional hearings to learn of concerns and generates numerous reports to NCAA members and the 500 staff members at the NCAA office in Indianapolis.

“A large percentage of what we do is play defense,” Burch says. “We try to prevent external third parties from negatively influencing the direction of college athletics.”

Those third parties may latch onto a range of issues, including sports wagering, redistributing revenue and regulating health and safety concerns such as concussions and compensating student athletes. He tells Congress what the NCAA is doing already to positively impact the experience student-athletes have, both on and off the competition field. For instance, he has spent a significant amount of time lately educating members of Congress and staff on the $30 million longitudinal study the NCAA and the Department of Defense have collaborated on to learn the impact of repeated concussions and how to properly address brain injuries.

Burch also oversees the NCAA’s internship program. He has noticed that the candidate pool is more focused than in years past. Some come to him with three or four internships with recognizable organizations and teams, something that admittedly is difficult to accomplish by law students who have only two summers to collect a range of experiences. He encourages students to take advantage of any and all opportunities they come across.

“If there’s an NCAA championship coming to your area or a pro team is running a training camp near you, go volunteer,” he says. “If you know people on campus or in the community or alumni working in the sports field, conduct information interviews with them. You have to be more than a huge sports fan to succeed.”

Sports has become less of an outlet the longer he works in the field. While watching a game, he’ll see a play or hear an announcer make a remark and think: That’s going to be a problem.

“Watching sports is never total enjoyment,” he says. “But the issues I work on I’d follow in my free time anyway. It’s great that I can work on issues I have a strong interest in.”

To know what Burch does on any given day, tune into sports talk radio or pick up a copy of USA Today. “Those issues on the front page are what I’ll work on that day,” he says. “Looking at Twitter or catching ESPN before I run out the door to work can ruin my morning.”

Carolina Law now has a joint degree program with Sports Management, something he wished had been available when he was in law school. The school still has the supportive faculty he benefited from while he was a student, away from home for the first time (he completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan in the town where he grew up) and with no one to say hello to when he walked across campus those first few days. He left Carolina with the skills and confidence to succeed in a demanding career.

“Not only did I receive a quality education but it was an environment where I felt nurtured,” he says. “I met my wife there, so if for no other reason, Carolina was a great choice.”  

Richard Thigpen
Richard Thigpen Sr. '56

Richard Thigpen Sr. ’56

As athletes know, positioning matters. Putting yourself in the right place at the right time increases your chance of success. Richard Thigpen, who retired in 1998 as general counsel of the Carolina Panthers, built a career in sports law doing just that.

A tax lawyer known for his negotiating skills, Thigpen signed with a private law practice in Charlotte in 1958. As a new member of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce and a diehard sports fan, he joined the chamber’s sports committee. He chaired the committee of the chamber and city to study the renovation and expansion of Charlotte’s coliseum in the 1960s, and a decade later was tapped to study the feasibility of a pro football stadium in Charlotte, and then a sports, entertainment and performing arts facility. In the interim, he represented several NBA players in contract negotiations.

And just like that, Thigpen found himself practicing in the little-known field of sports law.

“When I was representing an NBA player in the early ’70s, I went to a meeting of sports agents in Las Vegas,” Thigpen says. “There weren’t but about a dozen of us. Now if you go to a Sports Lawyers Association Conference, there will be 600 to 800 lawyers there who practice law related to some aspect of sports.”

Over the course of his career, Thigpen took on clients in various sports ventures: the future owner of an NBA franchise in Charlotte; the owners of the American Soccer League franchise the minor league ice hockey team of the Charlotte Checkers; the Southern Hockey League; the World Football League; and the Charlotte Hornets.

He began representing future owners of the Carolina Panthers in 1987, and when the franchise came through in 1993, he agreed to serve as general counsel. In that role, he oversaw the handling of innumerable legal issues: workers comp, brownfields litigation, sign ordinances, sponsorship deals, interest swaps, personnel problems, construction contracts, securities matters, and the county health department deeming the resistance pools as open to the public.

“You’ll encounter everything you can imagine about in the practice of law if you’re dealing with sports ventures, athletes and fans,” he says.

Law school taught Thigpen how to recognize a problem, research to find an answer, then express himself well as he presented his conclusions verbally and in writing.

“If you don’t recognize problems,” he says, “you’re going to get hurt.”

Thigpen earned the respect of his peers, who elected him president of the statewide N.C. Bar Association, the national American College of Tax Counsel and the international Sports Law Association. He also made time to serve as president of the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame and chair of the World Seniors Invitational Golf Tournament and the 2000 USGA Senior Amateur Championship.

When Thigpen told the Panthers of his plans to retire, the franchise recruited his son, who had been working on Panther business for more than a decade. The hire came so quickly, Thigpen says, “I didn’t have a chance to give him any advice.”

The heads of the NFL, NBA and NHL all are lawyers who came out of private practice. Thigpen’s advice to law students who want to break into sports law: Join a firm that represents athletes or teams and gravitate toward those clients.

“Put yourself in a position where you get exposed to sports clients, then do the best job you can,” he says.

His winning career started at Carolina Law, he says, where he learned how to recognize and handle problems. “Even if I had never practiced law a day in my life, what I learned in law school was the best education I could have had,” he says. “It would stand me in good stead in anything I did.”

-February 1, 2017

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