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Behind the Scenes of Sports Law

Frank Coonelly, an attorney for Major League Baseball, goes to bat for owners.
Would-be Jerry Maguires got a glimpse into the wide world of sports law when the Entertainment and Sports Society hosted counsels to the four major sports.

Students considering careers in sports received a crash course in salary caps, revenue sharing, and luxury taxes, which have become as much a part of the games as earned run averages, field goals, and free throw percentages.

Buck Briggs, assistant general counsel to the National Football League’s Management Council and Sports Law adjunct professor at Penn, was the moderator. The speakers were Frank Coonelly, Dennis Curran, Rick Buchanan, and Bill Daly. Some entered the field by luck, some by design.

Curran, senior vice president and general counsel of the Management Council for the National Football League, said he did not court a career in sports. He was working for an airline that folded. One day he got a call from a former colleague at the airline who offered him a job. “I wish I could say I was trying to get into sports,” Curran said. “It never crossed my mind.”

Rick Buchanan, on the other hand, groomed for a career in sports. After law school he went to work for Paul Tagliabue, then a partner at Covington & Burling in Washington. Tagliabue is now commissioner of the National Football League. The NFL was Buchanan’s major client, but when a job opened up in the National Basketball Association, he did a crossover move. Today he’s the NBA’s senior vice president and general counsel.

To some extent, Curran and Buchanan are the envy of their peers. Basketball and football have a salary cap. Major League Baseball does not. Coonelly, vice president and general labor counsel for Major League Baseball, conceded his job would be easier with a salary cap, but players remain opposed. So management negotiated a luxury tax in the last contract that requires teams to pay a penalty if their payrolls exceed $117 million. It has worked so well, Coonelly said, that the union is crying collusion and may file a lawsuit in reponse to the weak market for free agents in the off-season.

Still, baseball’s labor situation – and financial health – is much better than the National Hockey League’s. Hockey players receive a whopping 73 percent of league revenues – by far the highest figure in sports. Bill Daly, the NHL’s executive vice president and chief legal officer, said runaway salaries and out-of-whack performance bonuses for young players threaten the game. With the league facing new contract negotiations in 18 months, “we’ve made it clear that we want to have fundamental change,” Daly said.

Daly need only look at the National Football League to see how the labor situation can change. Two strikes in the 1980s nearly crippled the NFL, but the league recovered, thanks to a collective bargaining agreement in 1993 that imposed a salary cap and free agency. Today, the NFL, with a rich television contract and equitable revenue sharing that allows small market teams to prosper, sits on a pot of gold. “We think we have an excellent system,” said Curran, who has been with the NFL for 23 years.

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