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The Republic of Sports

August 20, 2013

By L. Jon Wertheim L’97

From the Penn Law Journal Summer 2013 issue. 

One of the occupational hazards of my work, I am often asked to name my favorite athletes. I’m still never quite sure how to answer this, so I tend to respond in one of several ways, ticking off heroes of my youth (Cal Ripken, Reggie Miller), fellow Indiana natives (Larry Bird, Don Mattingly), towering figures whose contributions transcend sports (Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King) or one of those jocks who have made my job easier by being accommodating and accessible (Roger Federer, Steve Nash).  

I seldom mention the two athletes who’ve probably had the greatest impact on my career: Mike Tyson and O.J. Simpson. Don’t misunderstand: I admire neither. Long as it stays between us, I consider them both to be pretty loathsome. But, indirectly anyway, they had an outsized impact on my unlikely career path.

In 1996, I was a 2L at Penn Law. As much as I enjoyed my studies and the challenge of the coursework, I wasn’t sure that I was cut out for a conventional career in the law. The previous summer, I had worked in a mid-sized West Coast firm, where I devoted great rations of time to staring at my watch, noting six-minute increments, and then wondering why time seemed only to crawl. I was prepared to work again as a summer associate, when, the occupational equivalent of a Hail Mary pass, I lucked into a summer job in the editorial division of Sports Illustrated.

“You have a lot to learn about writing,” a particularly candid editor told me during an interview. “But we like that you have a legal background.” He went on to explain that in the past few years—during the O.J. murder trial and Tyson’s extended one-man crime wave—the magazine could have used more staffers armed with the skills to pull legal documents, distinguish between an indictment and an arraignment, translate legalese into a language the readers could comprehend. Oh, and when could I start? I accepted the position on the spot. During the workdays that summer, time flew. I took that as a good sign. I started full-time the Monday after I took the bar exam, and have been part of the enterprise ever since.

The editors back then had seemed to recognize what is now plainly apparent. Sports have grown—metastasized, some, including my wife, might say—into something unrecognizable. What was once a mode of escapism is now inescapable. Time was, the sports division at a television network or a newspaper was inevitably called the “toy department,” an offshoot not to be taken seriously; now sports telecasts are the highest-rated shows on the air and helping keep newspapers alive. Games and athletes once gripped fans for a few hours, mostly on the weekends; now they simply don’t let go. Sports has become our Esperanto, our universal language. Catalyzed by everything from ESPN to the Internet to fantasy leagues to gambling, sports have moved from the margins to the mainstream. Collectively, our appetite for sports verges on the insatiable.

As our emotional investment has intensified, so has our financial investment. Depending on where you draw lines of demarcation, globally, sports are a $1 trillion industry. Arenas and stadiums are sometimes funded— disturbingly, I would argue—by taxpayers. The identity of colleges and universities can be tied—again, disturbingly—to the fortunes of their teams. Companies hire athletes as “brand ambassadors” to tell us what kind of soup to slurp, what kind of car to drive, where to invest our retirement savings.

So it was that Sports Illustrated initially hired me to report legal affairs—not to cover games and athletes themselves, but rather to cover the next Mike Tyson scandal. And so it is that sports now offers plenty of roster spots, as it were, to practicing attorneys. If “sports law” once meant looking over a boilerplate contract, it has now come to implicate everything from antitrust to medical malpractice to licensing. My friend and Penn Law classmate, Scott Rosner L’97, has become a national expert in the field. My civil procedure mentor/tormentor, Professor Stephen Burbank, was a longtime special master of the NFL, ruling on disputes ranging from the division of broadcast revenues to whether the league could impose penalties on the New Orleans Saints for the “bounty” scandal. As you read the forthcoming profiles of the four Penn Law alumni working in the sports ecosystem, note the diversity of their practices.

But wait. If sports are another sprawling, global, multi-tiered industry, how is it any different from innumerable other sectors? The knee-jerk response: It’s not. But that’s not really true. A discussion of sports’ virtues can quickly trespass into cliché, so much talk of “building character” and “team unity.” But the Republic of Sports, as a colleague calls it, is a unique space, with a social code, a set of customs, even a language all its own.

In my experience, the same rules and sprit of competition informing the games apply throughout the industry. It is an intensely hierarchical space; there are rankings and rungs, All-Star writers and Top 40 sports lawyers. On the other hand, like athletes, you know what’s required to ascend. Fair play is honored; cheating (and cheap shots) are roundly condemned. It’s very much a meritocracy. You’re rewarded for exceptional performance. You’re called out when you stint on effort.  There’s an unmistakable thread of optimism, a sense that possibilities abound, that fortunes can improve, that a lousy outing (or season) can be reversed.

For better or worse, the sportscape isn’t big on ambiguity and nuance. Fans can—and do—stay past last call debating whether, say, the San Francisco 49ers are superior to the Baltimore Ravens. But ultimately, there will be a game between the teams and the scoreboard will provide clarity and leave little open to interpretation. Likewise, those working in the industry often demand definitive resolutions and outcomes. We want winners and losers and empirical results.

There’s plenty of brutal, antisocial behavior in sports (which, selfishly, has enabled me to keep my job). But there’s far more goodness. The notion that being a fan of a team or an athlete means joining a pluralistic, classless community? I’ve seen too many examples of that to dismiss it. That sports can transform and unify and make borders irrelevant and go a long way toward explaining the human condition? Yes, yes, yes and yes.

I usually get tongue-tied when asked if my job is fun. Yes and no. Working in sports is not be confused with working the blast furnace or venturing into the salt mines. (Except for the time I had to interview former Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth.) But it’s still work. As I recently told my 11-year-old son, it’s amazing how much less enjoyable it is to sit courtside when you’re on deadline. Of course, then I added that anytime you can make an avocation your vocation, you should consider yourself lucky. Especially when it all happened by accident.

L. Jon Wertheim L’97 is executive editor of Sports Illustrated and author of various books including the New York Times best-seller, Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won.