By Lloyd E. Shefsky
Founder and President Emeritus of the Sports Lawyers Association
In order to understand the nature and functions of the Sports Lawyers Association ("SLA"), it is important to understand (i) the history and nature of sports law, (ii) how people become sports lawyers, (iii) how and why the SLA came into being, and (iv) how they first became members of the SLA. The years leading up to 1975 were bleak regarding relations between representatives of teams and those of players. Teams were aggressively preventing their athletes from engaging the services of representatives, whether lawyers or not. At least one agent, who happened to be a New York lawyer, was physically ejected by goons hired by his client's employer — the team. Several clubs absolutely refused to deal with an agent. The animosity between teams and agents had become intense and, indeed, downright dangerous.
Although it was abundantly clear that something had to be done to bring the two sides together, it was equally clear that it would not be by bringing owners and agents together. So a small group of us (five to be exact) decided that the best approach would be to bring together counsel for opposing parties, in much the same way that bar association committees bring together lawyers representing multiple sides of situations or transactions (e.g., Securities Law, where lawyers for issuers and underwriters attend; Antitrust Law, where lawyers for accused and lawyers for accusers attend) so they can discuss legal issues and the needs of their respective clients, in a very civilized and professional manner. Thus they could all become better able to help their clients achieve their goals and maximize their opportunities. In 1975, SLA was founded by a small group: Jack Mills, John Wendel, Rick Wagenheim, Tony Pace and myself. I was elected as president. My attributing that to the wisdom of the other four is not meant to imply that I was the best candidate; it merely suggests that I was the only person in the room foolish enough to take the job.
None of this mattered very much while athletes were paid "minimal wages" as a result of constraints on athletes' movements to other teams. That all changed when the free agent concept was confirmed through contentious litigation as a result of which athletes' compensation began to escalate. In the 1970's, one of the future members of the SLA, Dick Moss, was counsel to the MLB Players Association, and litigated the Curt Flood Case, that would ultimately outlaw the restrictions that prevented players from seeking contracts with other teams and legalize the free agency concept. As a result, players could negotiate for larger salaries.
To give you some perspective on the difference between compensation paid today and compensation paid then, I'd like to relate the story about the 2001 annual meeting of the SLA. Our guest speaker for the luncheon was former U.S. Senator and Presidential candidate, Bill Bradley, who also had a career as an NBA basketball player, after graduating from Princeton, where he also played ball. He told the story about his father who was rather upset when he heard that Bill was going to college, where he'd be playing basketball. He suggested, at first, that Bill get a part-time job while attending school. Bill explained that he could not do that because he was spending so much time practicing and playing basketball. Each year when he would go home for Christmas or Summer vacations, his father would say, "Bill, why don't you get a job?" and Bill would tell his father that he couldn't because he was playing ball. Eventually, he graduated from Princeton and became a Rhodes Scholar.
Upon returning from England, Bill explained to his father that he was going to play professional basketball in the NBA. His father, once again said, "Bill, why don't you get a job?," to which Bill replied, "Dad, this is a job. I am going to get paid for playing basketball." His father then asked Bill how much he was going to get paid, and when Bill answered, his father seemed totally satisfied. It was clearly an ample salary. It was $7,200 per year.
Probably even Dick didn't guess how far salaries would move as a result of the Flood case. In any event, suddenly, there was growing interest in being a sports agent, and it became possible to entice and convince lawyers representing players, owners and others involved in professional sports to become members of the SLA. Now, when I say "entice" and "convince," I really mean beg, plead, call in chips and otherwise twist people's arms to join the organization. Once they were there, however, they understood and appreciated the SLA's mission, which was:
Starting out was anything but easy; there were many times and occurrences that made me wonder whether fate was telling us to quit. Just after we selected "Sports Lawyers Association" as the organization's name, with the acronym "SLA", the breaking news about the kidnapping of Patty Hearst identified the kidnappers as the Symbionese Liberation Army, whose acronym, the "SLA", became a household word. We decided to keep our name. Today, I can attribute that to stubbornness, arrogance, wise foresight, and confidence that the organization would outlast the Army and its public presence. Actually, it may have been attributable to our reluctance to spend the filing fees to amend our charter. Either way, we decided not to change our organizational name, although for years, the acronym "SLA" was used only in private conversations and always with a smile among the founders and earliest of members.
At about the same time that SLA was leaving the starting gate, a former head of the National Football League's Players Association ("NFLPA") started another organization, the Association of Representatives of Professional Athletes ("ARPA"), all of whose members were to be representatives of professional athletes, whether lawyers or not. This seemingly close relationship with the strong and prestigious NFLPA would have prompted Vegas odds makers to pick ARPA over SLA to survive the competition. ARPA of course is long gone, and SLA is thriving. Indeed, we've now been around so long that the most relevant organization for our founders is AARP, the American Association of Retired People. Clearly, our principle — bringing together both sides — was a fundamental difference over ARPA. I also attribute SLA's survival to the early members' commitment of energy and time and to principles, such as ethics, fairness and concern for clients (i.e., professionalism). Those principles were adopted early on by SLA leadership.
About a year after founding the SLA in 1975, I realized that (i) building this organization would take an inordinate commitment of time and resources, which I felt I couldn't afford (I reflected on that feeling many more times during my 11 years as President of the Association) and (ii) since attracting new members required continuous arm-twisting efforts (as described above), and realizing that getting other members to assume some of the burdens would take evidence of viability and success, I had created and was perpetuating a perfect catch-22 storm. So in 1976, I wrote to the American Bar Association, telling them of our existence, meager though it might have been, and offering to transfer this startup organization to them, so that they could integrate it into their fold, as a committee — The Sports Law Committee — dealing with growing (in number and complexity) issues of sports law. That was 1976, not 1876, yet the reply I received, in a letter from the American Bar Association, stated that they could not accept our offer because "there is no such thing as 'sports law'." Imagine that! About two years later, they recognized the error of their ways and began such a committee, with that very name, but that committee folded after a few years. I guess it's not easy building a sports law committee if you don't believe there's an area of law called "sports law."
Virtually at the same time that we founded SLA, state courts such as Florida were prosecuting lawyers who solicited young athletes as potential clients because the rules of legal ethics prohibited solicitation of clients. Of course, sports agents who were not lawyers were able to solicit potential clients. As a result of that uneven playing field, many athletes went with non-lawyer agents when they could have had the benefit of the extra knowledge, sophistication and standard of professional ethics of lawyers who practiced sports law. Indeed, had those athletes gone with lawyers to represent their interests, they would have been protected by all of the other rules of legal ethics to assure that they got a fair shake. Many years later, the NFLPA and subsequently the other Players Associations, instituted rules and certification procedures for agents who wanted to represent professional athletes. Indeed, they eventually used SLA Conferences as the forum for certification prerequisite classes.
Some of the interesting occurrences in the early years of the Association were as follows:
At our annual conferences, a variety of subjects were discussed and presented. Perhaps one of the more interesting programs was developed by Reuven Katz. It discussed how newcomers could break into the game and become sports agents. Reuven used to tell a wonderful story about going to a bar where athletes were known to congregate and eventually meeting professional athletes who learned that he was a sports lawyer. I have often wondered whether some of our younger, newer members used this to the appropriate advantage described by Reuven and have come to our annual meetings ever since or whether they have been busy attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings instead.
We've always said that the purpose of the organization was to get professionals to communicate better, and for the most part that meant communicating better with lawyers representing opposing clients. It also meant enhancing their ability to communicate with their own clients. As these lawyers learned more and more about approaches taken by other lawyers, representing teams, athletes, leagues, players associations, media companies, endorsed product manufacturers, etc., they were better able to educate, inform and prepare their clients for some of the more difficult aspects of being involved in professional sports.
At one point, the SLA, in conjunction with Illinois State Senator William Marovitz, drafted a bill that might become a uniform Bill, if adopted by all states, to regulate the practice of representing professional athletes. When it became clear that the states were more interested in adopting their own legislation, we obtained the support and assistance of U.S. Senator Robert Packwood, then Chairman of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, and drafted proposed federal legislation. Somehow other matters took precedence. It is hard to imagine that Congress does anything more important than regulate sports lawyers.
While I am extremely proud of "my baby," the SLA, and appreciative of those members who took the mantel of leadership, when I "retired" as president of the SLA, one of my proudest moments occurred 25 years after the founding of the SLA.
When I refused to run for reelection, in 1987, I gave what I thought would be my final speech to the SLA (especially after that ovation celebrating my departure). In that speech I suggested that the SLA do something to improve the image of sports lawyers, specifically by creating a charitable-giving fund. I warned that, some day, there might be a movie or TV show about the antics of some sports agents, and that a charity program would help separate SLA Members from those images.
When SLA celebrated its 25th anniversary, they were kind enough to invite me to be the key-note speaker at their Annual Meeting lunch. I described the history of the SLA to the 500+ people in the audience. Near the end of my talk, I reminded them of my 1987 warning and suggestion. By then (2000), the Tom Cruise movie, "Jerry Maguire" and the TV show "Arlis" were history. So once again, I urged the adoption of a charity policy and program. At the end of my speech the incoming president, Bill Webb, counsel to the Philadelphia Phillies, said he agreed and as his first act as president, was appointing me as Chair of a new Philanthropy Committee, a post I willingly accepted and held for a couple of years. I'm extremely proud of the continuation of that Philanthropy Committee and Program, which has made sizable contributions to the following groups: Athletes Against Drugs, Inner-City Games, The Foundation For Blind Children, Special Olympics Canada, Parks and People Foundation, The Argos Foundation — Stop the Violence, MetroLacrosse and Sport in Society/Urban Youth Sports and First Tee of San Francisco. I hope all the SLA Members share my pride in the philanthropic contributions of the SLA.
Sports lawyers are by no means all the same. One interesting difference in how they became sports lawyers. For many, especially in the early years, it was a fluke. For example, Reuven Katz was referred a client for a house closing, who happened to be on the Cincinnati Reds; Rick Wagenheim was a Workman's Compensation lawyer who would up representing athletes; several members who were lawyers at large law firms, handling legal matters relating to a big client's business interests, were the natural person the client turned to when he bought a sports team; and in my case, I was doing tax planning for a CEO of a Fortune 100 subsidiary who happened to sponsor a race car, which led to my representing an Indy driver who later introduced me to other drivers and even to my first team players (Chicago Blackhawks).
There have been times when SLA Members who represented players yelled at SLA Members who represented terms and owners, and vice versa; there have even been those SLA Members who walked out of meetings to show their disdain and differences. There have been a few members who resigned to express their differences and a few whose applications for membership were denied. Yet, in all these years and decades, those were totally insignificant, compared to the hundreds of partnerships that developed and the thousands of times that negotiations and transactions were enabled and enhanced by those very relationships. Peer pressures clearly existed. No one will ever know for certain, but I am confident that it has had a profound effect on improved ethical behavior and knowledgeability of many SLA members, representing various people and companies involved in professional sports.
Today, everyone would agree that the American Bar Association was wrong and that there are sports lawyers and an area of specialization called sports law. Indeed, the SLA now has over 1,000 members nationally and internationally, including practitioners, law professors and law students. With that growth the SLA hired an association management company in the 1990s to manage its administrative affairs, first in Racine, Wisconsin and now in Reston, Virginia. Those of us who have been involved for decades, and even those more recently involved, also know that the Sports Lawyers Association has achieved and continues to achieve its Mission.