Experts adjust as legal landscape between college, pro leagues ‘blur’

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Adjunct professor Larry Silverman is revamping his course in sports law at the University of Pittsburgh to include collegiate athletics, a topic he hasn’t covered in the six years he’s taught the course.

“I made a conscious decision to focus on professional sports,” Mr. Silverman said, partly because the legal issues at the collegiate level are so broad. “But with the lines between amateurism and professional sports beginning to blur, it’s almost unavoidable.”

Several high-profile cases involving college athletes are working their way through the legal system and appear to present opportunities for firms seeking to expand their sports law practices. But legal experts say if a firm isn’t already in the space, jumping in to pick up work from the current crop of cases may be a bit premature.

“Five years ago, a lot of law firms and people with legal practices spotted this area as an opportunity,” said Gene A. Marsh, who is of counsel to the law firm of Jackson Lewis and is a former chairman of the NCAA’s infractions committee. He represented former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, who was ultimately forced to resign in 2010 for infraction violations. “But these new suits are a different critter.”

The suits that Mr. Marsh referred to include several cases challenging the rights and status of college athletes. For instance, in March, the Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern University scholarship football players were employees, which opened the door for the players to unionize.

But the case that may have more long-term significance, Mr. Silverman said, is the one involving former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon, who is challenging the NCAA’s restrictions on current and former athletes being paid for their names, images and likenesses.

“If the rules change so that current and former athletes have the right to be paid for the use of their images, then presumably you could have lawyers representing athletes to make sure they get enough money for the use of those images, and to make sure those contracts are drafted appropriately,” Mr. Silverman said.

Mr. Marsh said he thinks the pending cases are so specific that once they settle down, there won’t be as many legal targets. And, he noted, it may not be terribly lucrative for law firms representing colleges.

Whatever the outcome of the NLRB and O’Bannon cases, Mr. Silverman thinks the door has been opened for a new way of thinking about the legal status of college athletes.

If the issue of athlete endorsements becomes an issues, he said there could be potential for new legal work. “And on the management side, I think right now the NCAA is defending several cases vigorously on so many fronts.”


Kim Lyons: klyons@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1241. Twitter: @SocialKimly.

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