Legally helping college athletes overcome "a blurred line"

A Penn Law student group’s symposium will address issues in college sports law

· February 23, 2014, 8:07 pm   ·  Updated February 24, 2014, 12:35 am

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The 50-yard line on a football field might be clearly demarcated, but getting into the pros from college comes with a bit of legal “blurred lines.”

Speakers at the Penn Law Entertainment and Sports Law Society’s inaugural symposium on Friday, entitled “A Blurred Line,” will discuss the gray area surrounding athletes’ transitions from amateur to professional sports.

The event - which will take place at the Law School from 9:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. - is bringing some of the biggest names in sports law to Penn.

Jim Delaney, commissioner of the Big Ten Conference, will give the keynote address. Other speakers include Yahoo Sports’ Legal Analyst Rand Getlin, General Counsel for the NCAA Scott Bearby and CEO of Relativity Sports Group Happy Walters - a leading sports agent who inspired the title of Adam Sandler’s film “Happy Gilmore.”

“We have orchestrated the event to mirror the transition from amateur to professional athletics, with discussions about amateur sports in the morning, and pro league discussions later on,” said David Simon , second-year law student and the group’s treasurer and symposium chair .

The symposium comes at a time when many of the regulations limiting college athlete compensation have come under fire.

Last year, the NCAA caused a stir by suspending Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel for the first half of the first game of the season because he allegedly received payments for autographs. (The NCAA eventually acknowledged that Manziel did not receive payment for the autographs.) Currently, football players at Northwestern University are undergoing hearings that will determine whether the players classify as university employees, which could allow them to unionize.

Accordingly, panelists will grapple with the idea of “why, as a society, so many people are offended by the idea of paying college athletes,” Penn Law ESLS Vice President Grant Darwin , a third-year law student, said.

With four panel discussions on tap for the event, speakers will delve into more specific aspects of sports law, like collective bargaining and the ethics of representing athletes who are new to the professional level.

“A lot of these athletes don’t have the financial background to be able to manage themselves,” Darwin said. “In the first steps, there’s a lot of hand-holding, so one of the things that will be discussed is where that hand-holding should take place.”

Since this symposium is the first of its kind for Penn Law ESLS, producing the event required considerable “elbow grease,” Darwin explained.

“It has been a combination of being realistic and being optimistic,” Penn Law ESLS President Eli Klein added.

The idea for the symposium came after Klein, Darwin and Simon attended a sports law conference in Atlanta last year. When the three assumed their new leadership roles in the club, they immediately reached out to the various luminaries who are now slated to attend the event.

At first it was a challenge for the group to plan the event so organically, especially because Penn Law ESLS did not have a faculty connection or a funding background.

“It was a bit of a chicken or the egg situation,” Klein said. “We knew we wanted a keynote speaker and other big names to surround that, but you can’t really get one without the other.”

Reaching out to the Heisman Trust, however, proved to be a game-changer. The Trust, named in the memory of 1892 Penn Law graduate John Heisman, made one of the largest single donations to a Penn Law conference to help the student group cover the costs of the symposium.

Currently, the group is still offering free tickets to Penn Law students, $30 tickets for outside students - including Penn undergraduates - and $35 tickets to attorneys and non-students.

The group hopes that the symposium will become an annual event that the younger generation of Penn Law ESLS members will be able to carry on. Darwin pointed out that the organization’s first year law students were an invaluable resource and have made him confident that the event will be “sustainable”.

The symposium marks a major development for both Penn Law ESLS and the discourse of sports law at Penn Law overall. “We really wanted to put sports law and entertainment law on the map in the law school,” Klein said.

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