By Stephanie Assi
Texas A&M University School of Law hosted its annual Sports & Entertainment Law Symposium on March 29 in Fort Worth. The student-organized symposium consisted of five panels: Navigating Intellectual Property Protections and Concerns in the Entertainment Industry, The Role of General Counsel in Professional Sports, Representing Professional Athletes, The Evolution of Title IX and How Colleges and Universities are Responding, and Negotiations in Sports. Here’s a synopsis of two of the panels.
The Role of General Counsel in Professional Sports
The Role of General Counsel in Professional Sports featured an impressive group of panelists. Rob Ramage of Texas Motor Speedway, Giles Kibbe of the Houston Astros, Kaleisha Stuart of the Dallas Cowboys, Alan Tompkins of Hunt Sports Group & FC Dallas, and Alana Newhook of the Dallas Stars all weighed in to provide insight on their career path, day-to-day work as general counsel, and advice to law students.
The theme seemed to be there is no single way, or a “right” way, to break into the sports industry. Stuart landed her role by first serving as outside counsel while at a law firm. Kibbe started out in the sports industry because he was general counsel for Astros owner Jim Crane when he purchased the team in 2011. Newhook purposely pursued and chased sports through law school, and the Stars created a position for her that didn’t exist. Ramage came from a litigation background doing intellectual property and antitrust.
All panelists agreed there are a lot of people in their organizations who have unbelievable backgrounds in education and impressive resumes, but take a job they do not really want just to get in the field and ultimately work their way up. “You have to be lucky and put yourself out there,” Kibbe said. Newhook also spoke about attending Sports Lawyers Association conferences to network and ask specific questions of people in roles she was interested in. Ramage represented athletes such as golfers on the PGA tour and NFL players, which enabled him to get his current job. Overall, if you are interested in sports, you not only must learn the industry—you must meet people in the industry, according to the panelists.
The biggest difference between working in a firm and working in-house is the team is your only client, thus you become very invested and very ingrained in the company. Stuart explained that when she was working in securities, the work came in waves. But now, the work is always there. She explained how you have to have the discipline to turn it off, “if we worked until the work was done we would never stop.”
The role of general counsel encompasses a wide range of duties—from mascots to FBI investigations. Newhook’s first project on the job was to do the trademark and intellectual property work for “Victor E. Green,” the Dallas Stars mascot. “Every time I see Victor E. Green running around our arena, the cute and wonderful alien that he is, hugging the little children who come to our game, I am immensely proud because I helped make that happen,” Newhook said. Kibbe’s most interesting project dealt with the St. Louis Cardinals hacking into the Astros’ database and stealing proprietary information. It was a three-year process and involved an FBI investigation.
While they may work on a variety of interesting cases, the panelists also play a role in basic legal work to maintain arenas. “Everything you see in an arena has a contract behind it,” Newhook said. Whether you are looking at an advertisement on the big jumbotron, or something projected on the ice, or any advertisement around a stadium—a lawyer had to work on and negotiate that agreement, she noted.
Representing Professional Athletes
The Representing Professional Athletes panel consisted of Mark Slough of Ballengee Group, Ashley Millerick of Willis & Woy Sports Group, and Professor Rick Karcher from Eastern Michigan University. Slough is a JD/MBA who has been a player agent for almost 20 years, and now also represents coaches. Millerick is an NFLPA agent and attorney. Karcher is currently a sport management professor and teaches sports ethics, sport governance and regulation, and NCAA compliance. Karcher played in the Atlanta Braves farm system for three seasons and is an expert on athletes’ rights and the athlete-agent relationship.
As an agent, you wear a lot of different hats. Slough explained how it can depend on a number of factors, such as the life cycle of your client, how the athlete’s career has evolved, how the relationship has evolved, and the type of relationship the agent has with that particular client. Most people assume that an agent’s role is only negotiating contracts—while that may be a part, it is in no way all of it. As a JD/MBA Slough can give business expertise as well as a legal opinion and can add value in many different ways. Millerick explained how an agent’s role fluctuates a lot based on a player’s age and personality. “Younger players have more questions and off-field things they are not familiar with business wise, [with] social media, [and with] how to relocate,” Millerick said.
Agents must recognize the difference in who your client is, and how the athlete/agent relationship changes depending on who that client is. For example, a lot of careers end voluntarily and not by choice. An agent must be prepared to help the client deal with different phases in their life and career.
Karcher explained how regulatory frameworks have a great effect on representing players. “You have a lot more to deal with in terms of regulation at the NCAA level, state level, in terms of being certified to represent players states have requirements, and [there are] costs involved if representing players, and union regulations,” Karcher said. The amount of regulation has really changed the dynamic of the traditional agent-athlete relationship.
Compliance departments, as Millerick explained, have made it difficult to build a relationship with a player because it is such a hard business out of college. Players tend to sign with someone, not because of a relationship, but because of a package or a deal that is given to them. “A lot of relationships are starting on the basis of not trust, and not really having mutual respect for each other, but [instead] everyone sounded the same and you offered me the best deal,” Millerick said. Sadly, for players, this has been a big problem in the business because a lot of agent-athlete relationships are not built on being open, blunt, and honest, so agents tend to feel uncomfortable giving advice. This is not in the best interest of the players because the role of an agent is to serve as an advisor and the relationship should be built on trust and honesty.
Stephanie Assi is currently a 2L at Texas A&M University School of Law. Stephanie is a member of the Law Review and is President of the A&M Sports & Entertainment Law Society.