Spotlight shines on Center for Law and Sports

One of the joys of sports fandom used to be flipping the morning paper past all the stories of crime and lawsuits to the sanctuary offered by the sports pages. But when an athlete appears in the sports pages these days, he’s as likely to be dodging a paternity suit as a linebacker, negotiating a contract rather than a race course, or shooting a gun instead of a ball. Since most fans spent their time studying box scores rather than law books, the sports media have increasingly relied on legal experts, including those at Florida Coastal School of Law’s Center for Law and Sports, to help make sense of the legal system’s growing influence on the sports landscape.

That sports could provide Coastal Law a vehicle to broadcast its legal expertise nationally makes sense. Coastal Law established the Center for Law and Sports in 2005 in recognition of the growing interest in sports law and the expanding market for specialists in the area. The center, one of only a handful of sports law programs across the country, combines specialized courses taught by faculty with experience in sports as well as law.

Coastal Law professor and the center’s director Rick Karcher said that, in addition to extensive practical experience in the field, the faculty’s expertise is founded on scholarship and research.

“The scholarship aspect is very important to us, because it bolsters our credibility, makes us much more knowledgeable about specific areas within sports law, and provides us with a variety of perspectives and ways in which to analyze the issues,” he said.

Karcher speaks from experience. His numerous articles published in law reviews nationally have led to him being a frequent speaker on sports law topics at conferences and symposia nationwide. He’s testified in front of Congress and contributes to a leading sports law blog. Additionally, Karcher’s research and writing on illegal agent contacts with amateur athletes has made him a sought-after expert witness in those matters.

He served as an expert witness in James Paxton v. the University of Kentucky. In the case, Karcher was asked to give his opinion involving a college baseball player who returned to school his senior year after being drafted in the major leagues. However, his eligibility was threatened when he refused to cooperate with an investigation into alleged improper contact between UK players and agents.

Karcher’s research into the area of agent contacts was prescient. In 2005, he wrote the article: “How to Curb Agent Misconduct in Professional Baseball.” Five years later, illegal agent contact has made front-page news.

Reggie Bush, a former star tailback at the University of Southern California, had his eligibility stripped by the NCAA after an investigation revealed that he had taken improper benefits, including a house, from representatives of agents who hoped to represent him.

Bush probably wishes he had the benefit of Karcher’s research before he met with those would-be agents. The revelation of Bush’s improper agent contacts led to severe NCAA sanctions including a two-year postseason ban, loss of football scholarships, and the vacating of wins in the 2004-05 championship season. Since the NCAA retroactively stripped Bush of his eligibility, the status of the many awards he won in 2005 is in question. He may become the first player ever stripped of the Heisman Trophy, college football’s most prestigious award.

While USC fans may understand the impact of Bush’s actions, they may not understand the underlying NCAA bylaws that led to them. In explaining the interplay between sports and law, Karcher said the sports law expert must often explain an entire body of law separate from United States criminal and civil law.

ìCommentary on sports law can be made even more complex in that sports law is in many respects its own separate body of law with its own unique case precedent and league rules, constitutions and bylaws,î said Karcher.

The Center for Law and Sports continues to help to raise Florida Coastal’s profile nationally, with its faculty – Karcher included – being quoted more than 600 times in print, television and radio news outlets in recent years. Notable highlights since 2007 include mentions in the New York Times, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, The Associated Press, and USA Today. The combined audience: more than 250,000,000.

Sports coverage, once concerned only with on-field exploits, is now likely to include contract negotiations, gender discrimination, legal entanglements and an athlete’s choice of legal representation. ESPN recently devoted an entire hour of its airtime to basketball player LeBron James’ decision to sign a contract with the Miami Heat as a free agent.

Famed baseball pitcher Roger Clemens similarly secured exclusive airtime, albeit in less pleasant circumstances. His testimony before Congress about baseball’s steroid scandal went beyond ESPN and was broadcast by all the major news networks. That testimony led to Clemens being charged with perjury, which once again has him in the national spotlight.

According to Karcher, it seems that those athletes facing legal consequences garner the most interest from the media.

“Unfortunately, the stories that generate lots of interest are when athletes get into trouble off the field, whether it be an amateur athlete suspended or investigated for improper agent activity or an athlete suspended or investigated for taking [performance enhancing drugs] or doing something illegal or immoral,” said Karcher.

But while a fan might be naturally curious about an athlete’s legal challenges, that fan won’t necessarily understand the nature of a legal dispute no matter how hard a sports anchor tries to explain it. Collective bargaining is harder for the average fan to process than a quarterback rating or earned run average. Filling the gap between sports knowledge and legal concepts is where the Florida Coastal sports law faculty can be used to their best advantage.

“The business of sports is a multibillion dollar enterprise with as many facets,” said Peter Goplerud, Coastal Law’s dean and professor of law. “As with any business that comprehensive, a multitude of complex legal issues can arise ñ contract negotiations, labor disputes, government interactions, regulatory issues, or ethnic and gender concerns.”

Goplerud was elected to the Sports Lawyers Association Board of Directors in 1997. He is a frequent lecturer on sports law topics, has written numerous law review articles on sports law, and is co-author of one of the country’s leading sports law textbooks. Goplerud was involved in the representation of professional athletes in team and individual sports during the 1980s and 1990s and, more recently, has served as a consultant to universities, athletes and coaches on contracts, athlete eligibility issues, and collegiate athletic compliance matters.

Like Karcher and Goplerud, the remainder of Florida Coastalís sports law faculty brings substantive, hands-on experience as well as scholarly and research expertise, which allows them to render complex issues more understandable to legal contemporaries, the media, and everyday sports fans alike. Professor and sports law faculty member Nancy Hogshead-Makar knows first-hand the pressures and legal challenges facing modern athletes. She earned her law degree from Georgetown Law after an amateur swimming career that included three gold medals in the 1984 Olympics.

Hogshead-Makar has been one of the school’s highest profile faculty members. In 2007, she was named by Sports Illustrated as one of the 13 most influential people in the history of Title IX, the landmark gender equality legislation requiring colleges to allow women comparable sporting opportunities to men.

There are few people nationally more qualified than Hogshead-Makar to comment on coverage of Title IX issues or on gender equality issues generally facing sports. She has authored numerous articles on the legislation and wrote in 2007 ìEqual Play: Title IX and Social Policy.î

Joining Coastal Law in 2008, Associate Professor of Law Roger Groves has also served as a resource on the national level, penning several books and articles, and also serving as a frequent commentator on stories ranging from contract issues to, most recently, stadium financing with Forbes. Groves was a state and local tax judge for a decade in Michigan, and then a partner in the major Midwest law firm of Howard & Howard, where he represented multi-national corporations, high profile entertainers and coaches. In 2005 he wrote what is considered among the most comprehensive books regarding African-American football coaches, Innocence in the Red Zone, and has been called upon to be a NCAA speaker to coaches, and the Black Coaches Association.

Karcher, not surprisingly, points to the Center of Law and Sports faculty as its strength. He said it’s their commitment to cutting-edge research into emerging sports law issues that makes the center a go-to resource for not only the media on deadline but other sports industry attorneys and professionals. Karcher calls the center’s status as a research center and legal scholarship resource an important part of our mission.

“All of [our faculty] have made significant contributions in the sports industry through their publications, consultant work and expert witness testimony at congressional hearings and in high-profile lawsuits,” said Karcher. “I think media outlets frequently seek our advice because we have established a high level of trust with reporters, and they feel comfortable that our opinions are reliable.”