In The Trenches Of Sports Law, It's All About The Pandemic

By Sue Reisinger
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Law360 (October 9, 2020, 8:57 PM EDT) -- Todd Davis, vice president for legal affairs for the NFL's Los Angeles Rams, said that in his 29 years with the team, he spent maybe 29 minutes on force majeure clauses — until this year's COVID-19 crisis.

"Now," Davis told a digital audience Thursday, "I spend four hours a day arguing with somebody about a force majeure provision." Force majeure clauses can forgive breaches of contract by either side when caused by a force of nature, but most do not mention a pandemic.

Davis spoke along with three other sports lawyers at a virtual event sponsored by Loyola Law School, Los Angeles.

His preoccupation with force majeure clauses, he explained, primarily involves contracts related to the Rams' new $5 billion, state-of-the-art SoFi Stadium, which opened last month with no fans allowed. Due to the lack of fans and the cancellation of the NFL preseason, the pandemic has impacted the Rams' contracts with broadcasters, advertisers, half-time show sponsors, and operators of parking and food concessions.

Since most contracts don't mention a pandemic contingency, that leaves lawyers to hammer out the differences on a contract-by-contract basis, Davis said.

Also on the digital panel were Maggy Carlyle, general counsel for the Pac-12 college athletic conference; Alex Winsberg, general counsel of Angels Baseball LP, parent of the Los Angeles Angels; and Bobby Hacker, who was vice president of business and legal affairs for Fox Sports for two decades and is now in private practice at his own law and sports media consulting firm.

The moderator was Kyra Buch, an associate at Littler Mendelson PC, where she handles corporate work that includes defending sports teams against workers' compensation claims.

Most panelists agreed that the concept of being a sports attorney did not exist when they went to law school.

Davis said he prepared to be a sports lawyer by following the path of a Rams executive, who hired him for six months only. Davis ended up staying his entire career.

The other three attorneys said they began their careers as corporate lawyers and that their jobs just led them eventually, and happily, into sports.

Carlyle, for example, was searching for a job out of college and applied everywhere, eventually landing an internship with the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs.

From there, she said, "I weaseled my way into a succession of jobs" that included roles with the NFL, the San Francisco 49ers and the NHL's San Jose Sharks, before landing at the Pac-12 conference. The Pac-12, based in San Francisco, is part of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

When asked about the most common issue they face on an average day, the lawyers agreed that right now it's crisis management, mostly related to COVID-19. Most of them must help teams comply with their leagues' rigid COVID-19 protocols, and protect the health and safety of fans, players and employees.

Winsberg said most of his other time is spent on labor and employment issues, "especially in California," which has some stringent labor laws. "I've also spent a lot of time on a real estate deal, locking in the future of the Angels in Anaheim, and on ticketing, sponsorship" and other deals.

Carlyle also said her number one issue is generally labor and employment, but she said being in-house means doing a variety of legal tasks — from contracts to compliance to liability. "If you want to prepare for sports law, there is no normal day," she added, "and six months from now, it will be very different from today."

Buch, the moderator, quipped that "everyone is a Monday morning quarterback" these days, and asked how sensitive the lawyers were to the publicity that can come with making an unpopular decision.

Davis responded, "I sometimes joke that we are the most public private company in the world. You have to be smart enough to know the repercussions of your actions. ... Everything you do has to be taken with the understanding of how it will make us look and what's best for the brand."

Buch asked what advice the lawyers would give to law students who want to be sports attorneys.

Hacker, who currently serves as president of the Reston, Virginia-based Sports Lawyers Association, recommended that students join the group, saying it offers many resources to would-be sports lawyers.

Most of the lawyers recommended a broad range of courses, especially labor and employment, contracts, corporate law, and intellectual property.

Carlyle added, "At the end of the day if you want to be a sports lawyer, you've got to pass the bar. So keep your eye on the ball, on all those bar courses."

--Editing by Aaron Pelc.

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