A Sports Law Practice At The Top Of Its Game

Thursday, February 1, 2007 - 01:00

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

Quinn: I have been practicing with Weil Gotshal for over 35 years, since graduating from Fordham Law School. Shortly after beginning at Weil Gotshal I was involved in Robertson v. NBA - as in Oscar Robertson - the earliest of the major sports antitrust litigations. This arose out of the merger of the American Basketball Association and the National Basketball Association.

Let me add that when I joined the firm it consisted of about 50 lawyers, five of whom were litigators. Today we have 1,200 lawyers in 21 offices around the world, and the litigation department, which I head, is comprised of more than 500 attorneys.

Klein: I have been at Weil Gotshal for 25 years. One of my first assignments as a summer associate was working for Jim Quinn on an antitrust case on behalf of the North American Soccer League against the National Football League. When I returned to Weil after law school, I was assigned by Jim to work directly with NBA Players Association head Larry Fleisher on a number of player arbitrations. Over the years I worked on litigation matters for the Major League Players Association and NFL Players Association, where I first met a number of players such as Dave Winfield and Tommy John, who later asked me to represent them personally.

Meyer: I came to the firm as a summer associate in 1985. I worked briefly with Jim Quinn and Jeff Klein on a case that they were handling for the baseball players on licensing rights. When I returned to the firm the following year, we had just been retained by the USFL to work on the appeal of the famous verdict where they were awarded one dollar against the NFL. In time, that became a practice involving considerable work for basketball and football players.

Editor: Please tell us about your practice.

Quinn: When I started my career, there was no practice area called sports law. There were a handful of cases that involved people related to sports, but those cases drew upon a variety of different disciplines, including antitrust, contract, labor and employment law, and so on. That continues to be the case today although intellectual property and collective bargaining have achieved a much greater importance than in the past, when antitrust provided us with the principal arena and the key issues were freedom of contract and free agency.

Meyer: Money is the key factor in the emergence of sports law. As sports has become a multi-billion dollar enterprise, the services of lawyers across a wide range of legal disciplines and practice areas come into play.

Klein: I head our firm's employment litigation practice, and my earliest "labor cases" involved labor arbitrations and collective bargaining disputes in the sports industry - an odd career path to becoming an employment lawyer. Over the years, clients have come to work with us because of our vast knowledge and experience in all aspects of the sports industry. There has been an extraordinary variety of matters that touch on the sports world, ranging from the formation of the Senior Professional Baseball Association and the YES Network, to a litigation against the New York Yankees over the then record-setting licensing deal with Adidas, to representing GlaxoSmithKline in negotiating a personal services agreement with former Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams for Paxil, to repre- senting numerous sports radio and television personalities in contract negotiations.

Quinn: A parallel factor is media coverage. Today there is 24/7 coverage by ESPN and the other sports networks, and a whole industry has arisen to feed the enormous interest of the public in their sports heroes and their teams.

Editor: Weil Gotshal's sports law practice has gained national prominence in recent years. What is the origin of this practice?

Quinn: Weil Gotshal's Ira Millstein was a nationally known antitrust lawyer. When Larry Fleisher, the head of the NBA players association, was seeking advice about the ABA-NBA merger, he called Bob Pitofsky, then a Columbia Law professor and the Commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission. Bob told him to contact Ira Millstein. Larry contacted Ira, and that is how we came to file the Robertson lawsuit. In the context of that suit I became friendly with Larry, and that led to contact with Marvin Miller, the head of MLBPA - the Major League Baseball Players Association - Ed Garvey, the head of the NFL players, and Alan Eagelson, the head of the players association in professional hockey. From that platform we have built our sports law practice.

Editor: Please give us an overview of the practice today.

Meyer: As Jim indicates, the nature of the practice has shifted away from antitrust. For many years the practice was concerned with establishing the rights of players to pick where they wanted to play. That trend culminated with the Freeman , McNeil trial, the first and only jury trial on the antitrust merits of sports league restrictions on players. Having established the basic principle of free agency, today we are focused more on the IP and licensing aspects of the business.

Players in all professional sports have IP rights worth an extraordinary amount of money. We do a great deal of work with the players on their rights of publicity. Our practice today has a particular focus on protecting these rights and, when necessary, litigating over them.

Klein: We also continue to represent professional athletes such as Jeff Kent of the Los Angeles Dodgers and frequently are hired by sports agents or agencies to represent them or their athlete clients in a range of litigation and endorsement matters.

Editor: Please tell us about the different disciplines and practice groups that support the sports law practice.

Quinn: There is an interplay between the antitrust laws and the labor laws that has long been significant in the context of the disputes that the players have with the teams. The players' position is that antitrust governs labor law, and the position of the teams, predictably, is the opposite. People with an antitrust background and labor and employment lawyers are central to the practice. Collective bargaining experience figures in our negotiation of contracts work. Litigation experience is also important, and, of course, IP work is growing at a tremendous rate today. There are few areas of law that a general practice law firm offers its clients that cannot contribute to a mature sports law practice.

One of the things that I find fascinating about sports law is the diversity of clients and the astonishing variety of the problems that they bring us. We represent ESPN, for example, and we have been involved in a dispute over the cable rights to cricket in India, something that I certainly never expected to encounter in this practice. Our practice is as much involved in the process of globalization as any of the practices heretofore considered mainstream.

Editor: Mr. Quinn, would you tell us about your role as lead counsel in McNeil v. NFL ?

Quinn: Bruce tried that case with me along with several others. We were in Minneapolis for four months. It was a fascinating experience. We represented all of the players in the National Football League, and the NFL itself was ably represented, of course. The press gave the trial front-page coverage - at least in the sports section - every day.

One of the important things we managed to accomplish during the trial concerned the release of truly confidential financial information with respect to the individual teams. The team owners claimed that free agency would bankrupt them and ruin the NFL, but in point of fact the financial records showed that team operating profits often excluded owner salaries and perks like personal airplanes, which ran in the millions in some cases. In one, an owner salary exceeded reported operating profits for the year. There were many sensitive issues along these lines in the case.

Meyer: We argued to the jury that the NFL's argument - that the player restrictions were necessary to sustain the league - was entirely specious on the basis of what the full financial records showed. Interestingly, not a single owner testified because they were reluctant to face being questioned on their finances.

Editor: Would you tell us about some of the other high points in your high-stakes courtroom career representing a variety of professional sports leagues, teams and players?

Quinn: Over the years, and particularly in basketball, we handled a number of high-profile, high stakes arbitrations and special master proceedings. They were significant because they dealt with the first of their kind of issues. Several involved major figures such as Bill Walton and Patrick Ewing. The first witness I questioned in one of these arbitrations was Red Auerbach.

Klein: Over the years I have had the opportunity to examine some of the unique personalities in the sports world such as Burt Sugar, George Steinbrenner, and a number of NFL owners, as well as the good fortune to represent some of the classiest people in the business, like Dave DeBuschere, Curt Flood and Dave Winfield, who is my son's godfather.

Meyer: In the McNeil case, I deposed legendary figures like Al Davis, Lamar Hunt and George Young.

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

Meyer: With all the new media, the focus is on the growing value of IP rights. A lot of the litigation I have been doing for the NFL Players Association involves fantasy football, which did not even exist 10 years ago and is today a billion dollar industry. The issues revolve around ownership rights and whether licensing fees must be paid. These cases clearly result from the emergence of the new media.

Quinn: In some ways we really do not know what is coming next. This arena sees the convergence of an enormous amount of money, unusual and sometimes flamboyant public figures and intense public interest. For example, we are currently defending ESPN in a libel action brought by Don King for two billion dollars. One of our basic responses is that Don King is simply libel-proof.

Editor: Speaking of the future, how would you like to see this practice develop over, say, the next five years?

Quinn: As a firm we have the reputation for having one of the top sports law practices. If we are successful in maintaining that reputation, we will continue to get challenging and interesting work in this area.

Please email the interviewees at james.quinn@weil.com, jeffrey.klein@weil.com and bruce.meyer@weil.com with questions about this interview.