Center for Sports Law & Policy Co-Director Doriane Coleman interviews global sports law powerhouse Jonathan Taylor
Jonathan Taylor QC is hailed as a giant among global sports lawyers. Head of the sports law group at Bird & Bird in London and co-editor of one of the leading textbooks in the field, his portfolio of clients includes international federations (football, athletics, tennis, equestrian, motor racing, cricket, rugby league), event organizers (Paralympic Games, Commonwealth Games), U.K. national governing bodies (football, rugby union, athletics), and anti-doping agencies (World Anti-Doping Agency or WADA, U.K. Anti-Doping.) In 2017 he was appointed Queen's Counsel in recognition of the quality of his advocacy, thus earning the designation QC.
For the past five years he has been involved in assisting WADA, World Athletics, the International Biathlon Union, and others to address the fallout from the conspiracy to cover up wide-scale doping of Russian athletes. As a litigator (in English legal parlance, doing ‘contentious’ work), his professional bread and butter includes enforcement of governing body rules in doping, match-fixing and other areas, disputes about individual athlete eligibility, challenges to the decisions and rules of governing bodies, and disputes about the commercial arrangements of different sports properties. He appears often before the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
I first met Jon when he called me to discuss my article Sex in Sport and to see if I would be willing to be an expert witness in the Caster Semenya case, which was then pending at the CAS. Jon represented the IAAF (now World Athletics) in that case. Since then, we have co-authored an essay for Judicature on “hot-tubbing” expert witnesses, and we continue to correspond on matters of mutual interest. Our Q&A here touches on the Olympic Games and the Olympic or "ad hoc" division of the CAS, "hot-tubbing" expert witnesses in cases involving complex scientific evidence, the Russia doping scandal, Olympic Movement governance, his extraordinary range of clients and cases, and how to become a sports lawyer.
DLC: The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) is, in effect, the supreme court of international sport. It sits in Lausanne, Switzerland, and cases are heard in the normal course by a panel of three arbitrators, with the possibility of a final appeal to the Swiss Federal Tribunal, i.e., the Swiss supreme court. For disputes on the spot at the Olympic Games, however, CAS has a special ad hoc division. You've litigated many cases at the CAS. Can you briefly describe the ad hoc division, the typical matters you're seeing in its Tokyo iteration, and the principal differences from the normal process?
JT: The CAS Ad Hoc Division is a small group of arbitrators drawn from the CAS list of arbitrators, who gather at the Olympic Games (and at other major events, such as the FIFA World Cup, the UEFA European Championships, and the Commonwealth Games) to be on hand to hear and determine very quickly disputes that need urgent resolution, because they relate to participation in the event.
In Tokyo, as at previous Olympic Games, the disputes have been about allocation of quota places, athlete selection disputes, and whether or not particular sports body officials should be given accreditation to the Games. As the competitions progress, there may also be ‘field of play’ disputes, although a line of CAS cases has established that CAS will not second guess on-field decisions of competition officials, even if they appear to be erroneous, unless there is proof of corruption.
The principal difference from normal CAS proceedings is the speed of the process. The rules for Tokyo specify that a decision will be rendered within 24 hours of receipt of the application, where the matter is urgent, and many matters will be that urgent, as the competition will be fast approaching.
I just acted for World Athletics in a case where German long jumper Markus Rehm sought a ruling that he is eligible to compete in Tokyo on the carbon fiber prosthetic that he uses in place of the right lower leg that he lost at age 14. He has jumped 8.62 meters on that prosthetic, which would have won gold at the last six Olympics. However, the evidence showed that jumping off the blade, which is effectively a very efficient spring, gives Mr. Rehm an artificial advantage over non-amputee jumpers, and therefore the CAS rejected his appeal. That case was heard by the ordinary CAS Appellate Division, but we agreed to expedited proceedings that meant the case was briefed and heard and a decision rendered within seven days.
The other cases that require urgent resolution at the Games are doping cases. The local organizing committee collects thousands of samples at the Games on behalf of the IOC, and a dedicated laboratory analyses them and reports the results within 24 hours. Where a prohibited substance is found, the IOC asserts an anti-doping rule violation and seeks to disqualify the athlete’s results and exclude them from the rest of the Games. Such cases would go not to the CAS Ad Hoc Division but to the specialist CAS Anti-Doping Division, members of which are also convened and ready to sit in Tokyo.
Before my first time working with you in connection with the Semenya case, I had never heard of concurrent expert testimony. It was a marvel to watch, especially as conducted by the Honorable Annabelle Bennett in such extraordinarily complex scientific circumstances. She has a great line when she introduces the practice, describing it as putting experts "in the hot tub." You and I borrowed this line for the title of our essay for Judicature. By way of introduction, can you summarize the practice and what's especially useful but also tricky about it from the litigator's standpoint?
In short, this issue arises when the parties to a case have offered conflicting expert evidence on an issue that the CAS panel has to resolve in order to determine the case (e.g., as to whether a 46 XY DSD athlete with internal testes that produce ordinary male levels of testosterone thereby derives a competitive advantage over 46 XX athletes whose ovaries produce the much lower ordinary female levels of testosterone.) Instead of hearing the experts consecutively, with their evidence led by the lawyers of the party offering them and then cross-examination by the other party’s lawyers, the CAS panel may order the experts to give their evidence concurrently (i.e., together ‘in a hot tub.’) Usually the CAS panel leads the experts through their evidence, seeking to establish consensus and to identify and examine the reasons for any differences of opinion. The parties’ respective lawyers will be given an opportunity to cross-examine, but they are not in control of the process; it is controlled by the chair of the CAS panel.
The advantage of this method is that it much more closely reflects the usual scientific process – scientists debating together the evidence in support of one or other hypothesis, identifying the strengths and weaknesses of that evidence, and opinion converging around the hypothesis with the strongest evidentiary support – and it means the scientists have to be reasonable in the opinions they express, or else their peers will quickly call them out. As a result, it is often the quickest and most reliable way for the panel to identify what is agreed, and to examine what is disputed and why.
In contrast, if the expert evidence is given sequentially, one or other expert may be tempted to portray a hypothesis that has little or no scientific basis as being just as credible as the more mainstream hypotheses championed by the experts on the other side. The panel, lacking the necessary scientific expertise, may struggle to see this and the lawyers, also lacking that expertise, may struggle to expose it in cross-examination, at least as effectively as the other experts would be able to call it out.
The main downside as an advocate is that you lose control of the process. You don’t get to direct your expert through their evidence, and your cross-examination of the other side’s expert comes after, and as a sideshow to, the hot tub discussion directed by the panel. And if the panel does not have a clear grasp of the issues and a clear plan to control the hot tub discussion, the debate may not be incisive but instead may just generate the very noise and confusion that you were hoping to avoid – at least, you were if the science is in your favor! Fortunately, in the cases I have been involved in where the expert evidence has been heard concurrently, Semenya and Leeper, that has not happened.
You've played significant roles over the last five years assisting WADA, World Athletics, the International Biathlon Union, and others to address the fallout from the conspiracy within the Russian sports movement, supported by various state agencies, to cover up widescale doping of Russian athletes. What can you say about those roles, about the most difficult aspects of that process, and what's left to do before Russia can return to good standing within the Olympic family?
I was actually first involved before the scandal was ever exposed, albeit unknowingly. In November 2013, at the World Anti-Doping Conference in Johannesburg, I sat on a disciplinary committee with Dick Pound and Larry Bowers, hearing concerns from WADA about the performance of the Moscow and Sochi anti-doping laboratories. That was the first time I met Grigory Rodchenkov, the director of those laboratories. At the time, however, the conspiracy he was part of to cover up positive tests had not been exposed, and therefore the evidence before us was limited to some dry, technical issues. As a result, we decided to impose only a provisional suspension on the laboratories, which was lifted in time for the Sochi Games after certain minimum performance assurances were met. If we had known then what we know now, the outcome would have been very different.
After the scandal broke in late 2015 with the publication of the first Pound Commission report, and then in May 2016 when Dr. Rodchenkov went public about the conspiracy in The New York Times, I defended at CAS World Athletics’ exclusion of Russian track and field athletes from the Rio Olympics, and then the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) exclusion of the entire Russian team from the Rio Paralympics. I also later chaired an independent commission that investigated allegations that the former president and secretary general of the International Biathlon Union had accepted bribes and other favors to assist in the cover-up of doping by Russian biathletes, culminating in a report that was issued earlier this year.
From 2016 to early 2020, I chaired WADA’s independent Compliance Review Committee (CRC), which makes recommendations for the action to be taken against signatories to the World Anti-Doping Code that fail to comply with the Code’s requirements. When I took on this role in 2016, the Russian national anti-doping organization, RUSADA, had already been declared non-compliant due to its central role in the Russian doping conspiracy but the rules at the time lacked any real teeth, so that while WADA could suspend RUSADA’s activities it could not require the International Olympic Committee or international federations to punish Russia by excluding its teams from major events in the way that World Athletics and the IPC had done. The CRC therefore oversaw the creation of a new set of rules, the International Standard for Code Compliance by Signatories (ISCCS), which gives WADA the ability to pursue meaningful consequences against non-compliant signatories, and requires other signatories to recognize and give effect to those consequences in their own activities and competitions.
The CRC recommended the reinstatement of RUSADA in September 2018, on condition that the Russian authorities produce the data from the Moscow laboratory that would show which athletes had had their positive tests covered up from 2011 to 2015. It was a very controversial decision at the time, and still is today for some, but the effect of was that if that data was not produced, RUSADA would be non-compliant again and the new ISCCS would apply. The Russians did produce the data, and as a result more than 50 Russian athletes have been sanctioned to date, with more cases still in the pipeline, so that a lot more justice has been done. However, an extensive forensic investigation determined that some of the data had been destroyed or altered before being turned over to WADA, in an apparent effort to cover up other doping cases. The CRC therefore applied the ISCCS to recommend that Russia be excluded from hosting or participating in the Olympics and Paralympics and any world championships for four years, with its athletes only allowed to compete on a neutral basis. The CAS decision handed down in December 2020 significantly watered down the consequences that were ultimately imposed, but the result is that for two years – 2021 and 2022 – Russia may not host any world championships, its officials may not sit on the boards or committees of any international federation, and its athletes may not compete in the Olympics or Paralympics or any world championships as representatives of Russia, or under the Russian flag and anthem, but instead must compete only as neutral athletes, albeit in uniforms that bear the Russian colors.
The effect of the award is that RUSADA has again been declared non-compliant, and it will have to provide various assurances to WADA before it can be reinstated. However, it remains to be seen whether the consequences imposed will be enough to deter the Russian authorities, and their counterparts in other countries, from ever again conspiring to subvert the anti-doping system in the way they did from 2011 to2015. Obviously, the CRC thought that more severe consequences were necessary to achieve that deterrent effect. Only time will tell whether what the CAS ultimately decided to impose is enough.
A recurring issue for Olympic Movement organizations in this period is whether they are and should be treated in law as purely private organizations subject only to private ordering and the corporate and organizations’ laws of the nation states in which they are domiciled. Can you summarize the argument you typically get for treating OM organizations as quasi-public or public entities and then your traditional response?
It does not surprise me that many argue that sport governing bodies should be treated in law as if they were public entities, despite the fact they are creatures of private law. After all, they govern global activities of enormous public interest and national pride, they are seen by many governments as a potentially important public policy instrument (e.g., to help promote public health, or to battle scourges like racism and social exclusion), and their actions or inactions can have enormous impact, for good or ill, on the lives of millions of athletes and others involved in their sports, as demonstrated, for example, by the recent safeguarding scandals in sports such as gymnastics in the U.S. and football in England.
I therefore agree that sport governing bodies should be held to the highest standards of governance and regulation – areas in which many of them still lag far behind best practice. What I don’t agree with is the claim that current laws and the mechanisms available for enforcement of those laws are inadequate to do that job. In the U.K., for example, sports governing bodies are effectively held to the same legal standards as public bodies: they must act fairly, in accordance with their own rules and the general law, and rationally (taking into account all relevant considerations and discounting any irrelevant considerations) and without discrimination. And the CAS jurisprudence holds international sports governing bodies to similar standards. In the seminal case (AEK Athens v. UEFA, CAS 99/2000), the CAS panel said:
The Panel is of the opinion that all sporting institutions, and in particular all international federations, must abide by general principles of law. Due to the transnational nature of sporting competitions, the effects of the conduct and deeds of international federations are felt in a sporting community throughout various countries. Therefore, the substantive and procedural rules to be respected by international federations cannot be reduced only to its own statutes and regulations and to the laws of the country where the federation is incorporated or of the country where its headquarters are. Sports law has developed and consolidated along the years, particularly through the arbitral settlement of disputes, a set of unwritten legal principles – a sort of lex mercatoria for sports or, so to speak, a lex ludica – to which national and international sports federations must conform, regardless of the presence of such principles within their own statutes and regulations or within any applicable national law, provided that they do not conflict with any national “public policy” (“ordre public”) provision applicable to a given case. Certainly, general principles of law drawn from a comparative or common denominator reading of various domestic legal systems and, in particular, the prohibition of arbitrary or unreasonable rules and measures can be deemed to be part of such lex ludica.
We have set out our understanding of these ‘general principles of law’ in the most recent edition of Sport: Law & Practice. They include various doctrines that are designed to safeguard the rights of individuals against abuses of governing power, including the requirement of legal certainty (procedural and substantive), respect for fundamental rights (including freedom of association, freedom of expression, access to justice, and non-discrimination/equality of treatment), and the doctrines of proportionality, non-retroactivity, and legitimate expectation.
As for CAS itself, the ‘supreme court of sport,’ it has often been criticized as a private body, not sufficiently accountable to public scrutiny, and lacking in sufficient independence from sport (although the latter charge at least has now been rejected by the European Court of Human Rights, in Mutu/Pechstein.) In my experience, however, while the CAS is by no means perfect, and the standard of arbitrators can vary considerably (as it does in any court or arbitral forum), it has many excellent arbitrators from many different jurisdictions, and they have shown themselves to be well capable of resolving complex disputes in a manner that shows appropriate appreciation for the ‘specificities’ of sport, and that seeks to strike an appropriate balance between the various competing interests, including between the rights of the perceived majority (e.g., of athletes) and the potentially conflicting rights of the perceived minority.
There are undoubtedly many improvements that can be made, both within the governing bodies themselves and at the CAS. But the simple fact is that if those institutions did not exist they would have to be created, because no governments are going to want to take on the task of governing sport, and the global level playing field that each sport requires can only be achieved if there is one ultimate supreme court for sport. If the actions of a sports governing body could be challenged in the courts of every country where the sport is played, conflicting decisions would soon abound, the enforceability of rules and decisions would depend on the country you were in, and there would no longer be a global level playing field.
You've had a fantastic range of clients and matters over the course of your career, which is still only mid-stream. Like all great litigators, you're also a really engaging storyteller. In addition to World Athletics and WADA, I seem to remember something about race cars and darts?
One of our clients is the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), which regulates international motor racing series such as Formula One, Formula E, endurance racing (24 hour LeMans), and world rally. Every so often I am asked to go to Paris to appear before the FIA International Tribunal or the FIA International Court of Appeal, usually to defend a penalty that the FIA has imposed on a team for breaching the rules of the sport. The FIA tries to ensure that success depends not only on the technical performance of the car but also on the skills of the drivers and their support teams, and that means putting very detailed restrictions on the specifications of the car. I can therefore find myself arguing about abstruse technical details such as the rate of flow of fuel from the tank to the car engine, or the precise angle at which a turning vane has been fixed to the car’s front wing to improve its aerodynamics. It usually leaves me wishing I hadn’t given up physics at school when I was thirteen. Fortunately for me, the FIA technical experts are very patient teachers.
Darts is at the other end of the technology spectrum, but it can also be a very exciting and compelling spectacle. Back in the early 2000s, Sport England (a public agency that distributes government funding to sports in England) was refusing to recognize darts as a sport, on the grounds that it does not require sufficient physical effort or skill. The British Darts Organisation (BDO) took that very personally, and its then-president, the redoubtable Olly Croft, offered to settle the dispute by means of a game of darts, saying if the Sport England team won, the BDO would withdraw its request. Surprisingly, Sport England declined that novel means of alternative dispute resolution. We then got involved and challenged Sport England’s decision on legal grounds – in particular, on the basis that they were treating darts unequally, since they had recognized archery and shooting as sports, and even recognized baton twirling, which did not seem to involve enormous physical effort. We also emphasized the substantial skill involved in throwing a dart accurately, and put pedometers on the leading players when they played in the annual world championship to show the amount of ground they covered (more than 15 miles in some cases, although that did include trips to the bar.) Ultimately, Sport England gave in and recognized darts as a sport in 2005. Olly promptly asked if we could help him get darts into the Olympics, which we respectfully suggested might be a step too far. However, the darts family became good friends. On my 40th birthday, which was a good while ago now, we had a darts competition where guests competed to play in the final round with the then reigning men’s and women’s world champions, Martin ‘Wolfie’ Adams and Trina ‘Golden Girl’ Gulliver. I proudly wore the darts shirt that Olly had given me bearing my given darts name, Jon ‘The Truth’ Taylor, but, sadly, was knocked out in the first round.
What do you regard as your most significant cases – won or lost?
Apart from that famous darts victory, I would single out the following:
International Cricket Council (ICC) v. Salman Butt, Mohammed Asif, and Mohammed Amir (2011): Cricket may not be well-known at the moment in the U.S., but it is huge in the Commonwealth and particularly on the Indian subcontinent. In 2011, a newspaper sting caught the captain and two star bowlers of the Pakistan team apparently taking a bribe to fix aspects of a test match against England. I prosecuted the case before an ICC tribunal in Dubai and Qatar, and opposed the players’ subsequent appeals to CAS. The players ended up being banned from the sport for ten, seven, and five years respectively, and they were also subsequently convicted of criminal offenses for the same conduct, with each of them serving custodial sentences in England before returning to Pakistan. The case was hugely high profile in England, India, Pakistan and elsewhere, and it also raised some very interesting legal issues, in particular, about the challenges of pursuing disciplinary charges concurrently to a criminal investigation, and some tricky evidentiary issues, especially since the ICC’s rules at the time required us to prove our case beyond reasonable doubt. For those interested in learning more, the case is described in some detail in a book called The Thin White Line.
I have done many doping cases, including cases involving tennis champions Marin Cilic and Maria Sharapova, boxing champion Tyson Fury, and athletics champion Salwa Eid Naser. However, the Russian doping scandal we covered above must rank top of my cases in this category, if only because of the scale of the cheating, the bravery of the original whistle-blowers, Vitaly and Yulia Stepanov, whose story has been well told by David Walsh in The Russian Affair, and the remarkable character that is Grigory Rodchenkov, whose story has been captured in his own book, The Rodchenkov Affair, and in the Oscar-winning documentary Icarus.
Chand v. IAAF (2015) and Semenya v. IAAF (2019) are also standout cases because of the fundamental issues raised, not just for sport but also for society, and because of the many world-leading experts involved, not least yourself, Doriane, whose contribution to the understanding of the parties and the CAS was immense. This was a pure sports law case, in the sense that no one was cheating; instead, the IAAF was defending the right of sports bodies to draw lines to demarcate eligibility to compete in different categories (e.g., sex, age, weight) in order to ensure the contest within those categories is fair and meaningful, and is decided by the athletes’ skills and determination, and not by external factors they cannot control or access for themselves.
No one disputes that male physiological advantages mean that competition has to be divided into male and female categories, because otherwise female athletes would be denied an equal chance to excel and to enjoy the many benefits of a successful sporting career. But that means the IAAF (now World Athletics) has to decide what to do when athletes have a female gender identity but a male biology (i.e., 46 XY athletes with differences in sex development that led to them being assigned female sex at birth; or 46 XY athletes who were male from birth but have since transitioned to female.) World Athletics wants those athletes to be able to compete in the category that is consistent with their gender identity, but only if the enormous physiological advantages they have received from going through male puberty and having male levels of testosterone boost their bone and muscle size and strength and their hemoglobin levels can be materially reduced. You were the one who explained to the CAS that it would be ‘category defeating’ – to use the phrase you coined – to allow such athletes to compete in the female category without addressing those advantages, and it was that argument that ultimately won the day, both before the CAS and before the Swiss Federal Tribunal.
Now the case has reached the European Court of Human Rights, so we have to await the final outcome. In the meantime, those interested in reading more about the two cases (Chand was the forerunner to Semenya) could read the account given by Joanna Harper, a trans female athlete who was also a witness, in her book, Sporting Gender. And there is also a readable explanation of the underlying science in a recently published book, Testosterone, written by Dr. Carole Hooven of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University.
Finally, there is the recent Markus Rehm case before CAS that I mentioned above, which followed two similar cases brought to CAS by U.S. 400 meter double amputee Blake Leeper, first in 2020 and then in 2021, challenging World Athletics’ rule that athletes may only use carbon fiber prosthetic blades in its competitions if those blades give the user no overall competitive advantage over athletes not using such blades. It sounds strange to think that an amputee athlete might have a performance advantage over a non-amputee athlete, but the running-specific prostheses that are in use these days are so technologically advanced that they can not only put the amputee athlete back on the track, but also give them a performance boost beyond what they would have if their limbs were intact. Once again, no one is doubting these athletes’ natural skills and commitment, but fairness to them and their competitors requires World Athletics to determine whether or not their blades give them an artificial competitive advantage that is not available to non-amputee athletes. In Mr. Leeper’s case, based on detailed expert evidence from U.S. and Australian experts on physiology and biomechanics, as well as a very valuable statement from Edwin Moses about the reality of racing over 400 meters, World Athletics established that by increasing the length of his blades to 10 to 15 centimeters longer than his natural leg length, Mr. Leeper was able to increase his speed by 1 to 1.5 meters per second, which translates to a several second boost over 400 meters. Since non-amputees cannot increase the length of their legs in the same way, the CAS agreed that it would not be fair to permit Mr. Leeper to compete at this artificial height.
After you got your law degree in the U.K. at Oxford, you came to the U.S. to get an LLM degree from the University of Virginia, and then you practiced law in New York for a time. How did coming to the States contribute to your development as a lawyer, and are there similar opportunities for young American lawyers in the U.K.?
After an enjoyable year in Virginia from 1989 to 1990, I worked for Schulte Roth & Zabel in New York for seven years as a commercial litigator, from 1990 to 1997. I was lucky enough to work both with and against some truly brilliant lawyers, and to get advocacy experience in various state courts and arbitral tribunals, as well as in federal court in the Southern District of New York, and even once before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which was nerve-wracking but also a very exciting experience for a then very young lawyer.
Throughout my time in New York, I was blown away not only by how smart the lawyers I worked with and against were, but also by the incredible amount of time and effort they put into ensuring that their work product was perfect and (usually) unbeatable. If the other side did not match that effort, if their work product was full of typos, or showed anything less than a comprehensive grasp of both the facts and the law, they had lost before they even got into the courtroom.
Surprisingly that sort of commitment to excellent legal work product is not always matched, in the U.S. or the U.K. or elsewhere. When I came back to the U.K. in 1997 and started to practice sports law exclusively, I insisted on the highest standards and only recruited lawyers who felt the same way. I hope our clients and the judges and arbitrators we appear before would say we maintain those standards rigorously to this day. But if so, that is all thanks to the lessons I learned practicing commercial litigation at Schulte Roth in New York.
Are there similar opportunities for young American lawyers in the U.K.? U.K. universities offer very good postgraduate law degrees, similar to the LLM I got at UVA, perhaps the most prestigious being the BCL (Oxford’s Bachelor of Civil Law degree.) There are also law firms here that are just as big and just as good as the best firms in the U.S., and it could never hurt for a young U.S. lawyer to experience different markets and different cultures, even if ultimately the experience at those firms may not be very different from the experience you would get by staying in the U.S.
You're not the only partner at Bird & Bird who specializes in sports law—it looks like you have a thriving practice group in general. Can you tell us a bit about that?
We currently have five partners and twelve associates working exclusively on sports matters in the London office of Bird & Bird, as well as many lawyers in other departments and other offices who help us out with their specialist skills (in corporate law, competition law, and IP, amongst many others) when required. We split the sport practice between contentious matters – mainly court litigation, arbitrations, and disciplinary proceedings, such as those I have mentioned above – and non-contentious matters, including drafting hosting and participation agreements for sports and e-sports events, and commercial contracts to exploit the value of those events, including broadcasting, sponsorship, and data rights contracts, as well as many others. We also do a lot of work drafting rules and regulations (e.g., sanctioning rules, doping rules and other rules of conduct, salary cap rules and other financial regulations, etc.) and conducting governance reviews (e.g. the Football League Governance Review and the Bury FC Review.) We often use lawyers from both sides of the group for those tasks, because of the multi-disciplinary skills required.
My colleague Paul Haagen and I co-direct the Center for Sports Law & Policy here at Duke. One of the most frequent questions Paul and I get from law students is about how to become a sports lawyer or at least to make sports law part of one's book of business. What was your pathway to the field and when you're asked, how do you answer this question?
I was very lucky. When I came back from New York to England in 1997, sports law was still a very immature practice area. Properties like the Premier League in England were emerging, but the full commercial value of sport had not yet been realized and, bluntly, the degree of professionalism both within sport itself and among those who serviced the sector was variable. I started working at a small law firm that had a good number of sports law clients, at a time when they had just started realizing that they needed first class legal skills to help them capture the growing values of their sports and to manage the risks attendant on governing such high profile and often contentious endeavors. Over the years, demand has grown and grown as more and more sports have become more and more professional and sophisticated, and as the commercial value of many sports and e-sports has exploded.
That is why, when I am asked for advice on how to become a sports lawyer, I say you will obviously need a deep understanding of the sector, so pore over the sports pages, for sure, as well as the usual good judgment and sensibility to know your clients and understand the issues they are confronting and what support they need from you to help get to a successful outcome. But first and foremost, I say, become an excellent lawyer, because that is what clients in the sports sector really need. As a sports lawyer, particularly a contentious sports lawyer, you will need to master many different areas of law, including commercial and intellectual property law, competition law, and public law and human rights law, and you will need to be ready to apply them to solve complex legal, commercial and/or political issues, often without any real precedents to guide you, and operating all the time under a very public microscope. So in the end, while I’m always interested if an applicant has sports experience and understanding, what I really care about is that they have had excellent education and training in the law generally, so that they have the hard core legal and practical problem-solving experience and skills that our clients need on a day-to-day basis.
Beyond that, all I can say is that the sports law market is not huge, and the supply of ambitious young lawyers always outstrips demand. So if you really want to break into this market, you have to be committed, you have to be patient, and you have to be opportunistic, which means staying abreast of developments, finding interesting issues to blog or write articles about (there are still many areas of sports law that remain relatively unmapped, particularly in the area of new data and technologies), and looking for opportunities to volunteer (e.g., as an independent director of a sports body, or as a member of an ethics panel or disciplinary tribunal, or as an athlete coordinator or educator) that will give you relevant experience and exposure to people who matter in the field. You will need all of that, and some luck too, and I wish you a lot of it, because I do think that it can be a very stimulating and exciting sector, and one where the application of legal skills can help to make a real difference. And what could be more satisfying than that?