Sports Law Practice And High-Stakes Litigation Address Legal Issues That Extend Well Beyond Financial Awards And Players' Rights

Wednesday, January 18, 2012 - 16:11

The Editor interviews James W. Quinn, Partner, Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP.

Editor: Would you give our readers some idea of your background and professional experience?

Quinn: I’ve been practicing law since 1971 – virtually the whole time at Weil – having graduated from Fordham University School of Law and University of Notre Dame for undergraduate studies. My practice involves all areas of complex litigation and alternative dispute resolution, with particular emphasis on antitrust, securities, false advertising, sports, entertainment, patent, and related complex intellectual property litigation. I am currently the head of litigation worldwide for the firm.

Editor: What are some of the different disciplines and practice groups that support the sports law practice? Tell us some of the history of this practice.

Quinn: We have principally been involved on the players’ side, representing most of the major players associations in a variety of legal disciplines, including litigation, antitrust and labor matters. We’ve been involved from time to time in intellectual property matters and even tax issues; thus, our sports practice is supported by Weil’s talent and resources from many practice areas: intellectual property, litigation, antitrust, tax and corporate.  

For almost 40 years, we have represented the National Basketball Players Association, and most recently, we assisted in reaching the settlement with regard to the lockout and related issues that troubled the National Basketball Association (NBA) this current season. We’ve also represented the National Football League Players Association for over 25 years and were involved most recently in the litigation and settlement in McNeil v. National Football League.

We currently are representing – and have on and off over the last 20 years represented – the National Hockey League Players Association on a variety of matters, and we have given counsel to individual athletes, including baseball and soccer players. On the corporate side, Weil, as a firm, has handled various types of representation, including on financial matters, to a number of different clubs in hockey and baseball. 

Years ago, we represented the North American Soccer League when it sued the National Football League (NFL) under antitrust laws, and we’ve represented the United States Football League in litigation against the NFL. Having been involved in numerous lawsuits involving the NFL and other major organizations, we have deep experience in sports litigation and in sports law generally.

Editor: Tell us about McNeil v. NFL and your role as lead counsel.

Quinn: The McNeil case was an antitrust lawsuit that was brought back in the late 1980s and ultimately went to trial in Minneapolis in 1992. As reported in the New York Times, this case led to the implementation of free agency in professional football and, over the subsequent 20 years, has brought about meaningful changes that have basically restructured the entire sport. Because McNeil involved a jury trial and was a great focus of interest among sports fans in general – and football fans in particular – working on this case was one of the highlights of my sports career.

More recently, we were involved in filing a lawsuit on behalf of a number of NFL players, including Tom Brady of the New England Patriots and Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts, among others. Here, we were suing the NFL in connection with the lockout that they imposed back in March 2011, and we were successful in securing an injunction against the lockout at the district court level. While that decision ultimately was reversed in part, we were able to negotiate a settlement of the lawsuit, again on behalf of the players, and enter into a new collective bargaining agreement with the NFL.

Editor: Describe how you helped negotiate a settlement – known as the Oscar Robertson Rule – of a 1976 antitrust suit filed against the league by the players union, under which NBA players became the first professional athletes to gain free agency.

Quinn: That settlement goes way back to my first involvement in professional sports. The lawsuit had been filed by one of Weil’s founding partners, Ira Milstein. It was one of the first antitrust lawsuits in the history of sports, filed against the NBA and the American Basketball Association (ABA) with a goal of preventing those leagues from merging.

The Oscar Robertson lawsuit, Robertson v. National Basketball Association, was the very first major antitrust lawsuit in basketball. It was filed virtually at the same time as the Kurt Flood case, Flood v. Kuhn, which was filed in baseball and ultimately was resolved in favor of Major League Baseball by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Robertson case, however, continued to be litigated for four years, resulting in the Oscar Robertson settlement in 1976 and leading to free agency in basketball for the first time.

Editor: Tell us about some of the other memorable cases in your high-stakes courtroom career representing a variety of professional sports leagues, teams and players.

Quinn: In addition to the Oscar Robertson case, we handled a number of other basketball lawsuits during the 1970s and into the 1990s, involving Bob Lanier, a hall of fame inductee; Paul Silas, a 2012 hall of fame nominee; and Junior Bridgman, whose number was retired by the Milwaukee Bucks. These cases involved complex labor and antitrust issues, and all eventually were settled.  We also were involved in litigation on behalf of the National Hockey League Players Association during the early 1990s, in addition to handling cases involving the United States Football League and the North American Soccer League, as mentioned above.

Editor: What are the industry trends that are going to attract the attention of sports law practitioners in the coming years?

Quinn: In addition to continued disputes relating to antitrust and labor laws, we will see issues relating to intellectual property – because of all the new technology – and to players’ rights, both in the professional field and now in the college arena as well. There is a significant amount of litigation relating to the rights of college players, asserting that they are being exploited by the NCAA and other organizations. Further, there is a growing trend in litigation relating to injuries, particularly head injuries, with lawsuits recently filed against the NFL and others anticipated in professional hockey.

Editor: Please talk about the NCAA and its justice system.

Quinn: We’ve been involved from time to time on collegiate sports but have principally focused on professional sports. That said, it is well known that the NCAA is essentially a cartel that so far has managed to survive. Currently, the NCAA is under a lot of pressure because different groups, including some of its own members, are balking about constraints under the NCAA rules.

Editor: How do you envision your practice developing in the future?

Quinn: Since sports has become bigger and bigger business – professional sports in particular but also collegiate sports – disputes will continue to arise because of the vast sums of money involved. These disputes likely will involve injuries, intellectual property, players’ rights, fees and broadcast rights to different sports telecasts and cable casts. For example, we represent some broadcasters like ESPN and CBS in issues relating to television rights. Going forward, it simply stands to reason that such high financial stakes will spawn additional and continuing litigation.

Please email the interviewee at james.quinn@weil.com with questions about this interview.