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A Sporting Chance: Considering a Career in Sports Law

Brown boxing gloves

The field of sports law is seldom discussed and little understood. It is certainly not a topic mentioned alongside the likes of corporate law, employment law or human rights law, and many universities do not offer it as an elective. Yet given the love of sport that pervades Australian culture and the importance that so many of us place on our favourite team, it seems odd that many law students have never considered sports law.

We’re constantly told to go into an area of practice that we enjoy, so with that in mind, I delved into the world of contracts, image rights and anti-doping to find out what it takes to become a sports lawyer, and why you should consider it.

Sports law is a diverse and intriguing field. Encompassing everything from criminal conduct, contractual disputes, discipline tribunals and copyright, a career in sports law is likely to be varied. It therefore provides a platform for lawyers of all fields to channel their love for sport into the context of their occupation. As such, it is not surprising that every sports lawyer I spoke to was enthusiastic and passionate about their job and the various sports they loved.

The first of these lawyers is Brian Ward, the managing director of Brian Ward & Partners, and a man with extensive experience in sports law. Ward studied law at Melbourne University in the late 1960s, while participating heavily in various sporting endeavours. When asked how he became a prominent sports lawyer, Ward details a long road to his current position.

“In 1967, when I was in third year, the High Court brought down the decision in Buckley v Tuttywhich found that the New South Wales rugby league rules were in restraint of trade. The decision stuck with me and I drew on it later. Meanwhile, I was elected by the players [of the football team Ward played for] as their representative on the committee at Sandringham.

“At this time, a number of VFL players were coming across to the VFA and the club asked for my advice on contract matters. Why they took any notice of me, I have no idea, but it led me into a search of the literature on professional athlete’s contracts. There wasn’t anything much in Australia so I drew on UK and US precedents. This prompted a lifetime interest in sports contracts.”

Ward became heavily involved in Richmond Football Club, and was introduced to Kevin Sheedy, who he has acted for ever since. “I negotiated Kevin’s recent contract with the AFL for Kevin to take over the coaching role at GWS… Some say I was really the pioneer in player management.”

And when Ward says that, he certainly isn’t exaggerating. He was a leading force in a famous restraint of trade case, Foschini v VFL, which paved the way for better freedom of player movement.

While the development of the industry may mean it is easier for law graduates now to become sports lawyers, it’s not necessarily an easy ride. According to Paul Horvath, an experienced sports lawyer who runs boutique firm Sports Lawyer, it’s no walk in the park. “It is a difficult sector to get into, you have to be in the right place at the right time, and I think the people who are in the industry on a permanent basis work hard to get the relevant experience.”

Horvath singles out a passion for sport as the key factor in being a successful sports lawyer, so don’t apply if you don’t know the Sydney Swans from the Socceroos. In Horvath’s case, he found himself in the industry after moving on from other areas of law. “I practiced in litigation and criminal law for a while, and felt like it was time for a change. I actually just stumbled across a post-graduate course in sports law at Melbourne University, and it went from there.”

Horvath believes a budding sports lawyer should have the basic subjects covered, but notes the importance of commercial law, employment law and corporations law to the job. “Any commercial area is relevant. Contract law is very relevant. Employment law is important. And some areas of company law is important as well, because a number of sporting bodies and clubs are set up as an incorporated association or a limited liability company. So you need an understanding of their structure and regulations.”

To university students interested in a career as a sports lawyer, Horvath advises: “Your starting point is to gain an involvement in the area. So get on the committee of whatever sports club you’re involved in. You could get on the tribunal, or get involved in making rules for the organisation, or sit on a board. And all of that gives you firsthand experience of what goes on, and invaluable contacts and networks. Most of the people I see as being very successful have great networks.”

While some might see the idea of sports law – spending time with famous clients and watching matches – as highly enjoyable, Ward stresses the job is still very stressful at times. “Yes I have enjoyed almost of all my time as a lawyer, particularly working with sports men and women, but at times the circumstances can be quite stressful for the athlete and lawyer.

“Two or three years ago I appeared for Cricket Australia and its players at an ICC tribunal hearing that investigated allegations by the Australian players of offensive language alleged to have been used by the Indian test cricketer Harbhajan Singh (known as the monkey gate scandal). This was an extraordinarily important hearing of international significance. It stands out in my memory but at the time it was stressful for all.

“Spending time with Kevin Sheedy at crucial moments in his career has also been a highlight. I was with him when he resigned as a player, when he was appointed coach of Essendon, and at every contract renewal. I was with him the night he was sacked. I was with him after every grand final win and loss. I was with him the night he got engaged to [his wife] Geraldine.”

To prospective sports lawyers, Ward says: “Ask yourself the question – do you have a passion for sport? If the answer is yes, then use that passion as a periscope to look through the miasma of the law for the things that interest you. Follow your passion even if it hurts. Have an opinion and be your own person. Don’t let the law homogenise you or turn you in to the clone of the stereotypical young lawyer.”

While you are trying to avoid becoming a stereotypical young lawyer, it would also be worthwhile following the advice of Ian Fullagar. The partner of the Sports Business group at Melbourne firm Lander & Rogers, Fullagar is an internationally recognised sports lawyer. A founding member of the Australia and New Zealand Sports Law Association (ANZSLA), he stresses the importance of getting involved and becoming connected, and recommends that students with a passion for sport join the ANZSLA “Get involved with local sporting bodies including the industry body by getting on tribunals and assist sports resolve disputes,” Fullagar says.

He also recommends paying particular attention to several subjects at law school: contract law, corporate law, administrative law, tort and intellectual property, so if you can’t remember the principles of trespass to person and estoppel perhaps look elsewhere. But if you enjoyed these subjects, Fullagar emphasises the somewhat unusual perks involved with the job.

“Seeing something about at least one of your clients in the newspaper everyday [is a particular highlight]! Probably the most enjoyable moment was authorising the shutting down of a global Internet stream feed for a major international event which was streaming to countries contrary to the geo blocking obligations in the contract.”

Like so many others, barrister David Grace QC cites his lifelong love of sport as the reason he’s in the profession. “I’ve been involved in sports all my life. I started off in athletics as a competitor, and then as a coach and an administrator. So I’ve been involved all my life, and because I was a lawyer I was often called upon to give advice on legal matters involving sport. So it went from there.”

Grace also agrees on the importance of contracts to the sports law arena, along with administrative law. He recommends that prospective sports lawyers also read up on the structures and rules of sporting organisations, and the various international codes they are based upon. “You need a good knowledge of administrative law, as that’s a really important aspect of sports law. Also contracts. And just the rules and regulations of sporting organisations, how they’re set up, their constitutions etc. So familiarise yourself with those documents. Also things like the anti-doping code, as they’re very important.”

Finally, Matt Burgess, Director of Gold Coast firm Burgess Sports and Entertainment Law, stresses the importance of luck in finding a position in the sector. “I got into it because I was always going to do sport in whatever I did. You need to do something you have passion for and this was it, so I just applied the profession I had with my passion and, voila… sports law. I was lucky enough to get my job at ASP [Association of Surfing Professionals] as in-house counsel when I left university and built on it from there.”

One aspect of practicing sports law that Burgess finds particularly challenging is getting his clients to understand the professionalism needed in the sporting environment. “Trying to convince people within the industry (athletes, agents etc) that sport is a professional industry [is a challenge]. And for the athletes especially, to get them to understand that some aspects of professional sport is no longer a game.”

With the Australian sporting and media landscape continuing to grow, Burgess believes sports law will expand rapidly. “It will grow in proportion to the media that people can view their sport and how they can get involved. There is no telling where that technology will go – we’re just going along for the ride!”

With high drama, interesting cases and extraordinary clients, sports law seems to be more than just another area of the legal profession. Although the sector may be difficult to get into, it provides graduates with an opportunity to combine their love for sport with a job that utilises all that hard work at law school.

So when Darren Lockyer is negotiating his coaching contract, Michael Clarke is struggling to cope with promotional deals, a famous swimmer is charged with doping and Gary Ablett is in front of the AFL tribunal, who are they going to call? You?

The man behind the article: Kieran Pender is law student who moonlights as a sports journalist. You can follow him on Twitter if you’d like to hear his occasional ramblings.

This is an adaptation of an article that previously appeared in Peppercorn, a publication by ANU Law Students’ Society. Reprinted with the permission of ANU Law Students’ Society.

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