The Legal Blitz caught up with one of Connecticut’s top sports lawyers, Dan Fitzgerald, to discuss his career and get his opinion on some of today’s hottest sports law issues. Fitzgerald is an associate at Brody Wilkinson PC and is a member of the firm’s Business and Litigation groups. Fitzgerald is also an adjunct professor at Quinnipiac Law School, where he teaches sports law. He has been recognized by Super Lawyers Magazine and Connecticut Magazine as a “Rising Star” in the area of Sports and Entertainment Law. When Fitzgerald is not in the courtroom, he is running his own sports law blog, CTSportsLaw.com.
Did you always want to practice sports law and how did you get involved?
I’ve been immersed in sports for as long as I can remember, playing, coaching and watching. When I graduated from law school, I didn’t give much thought to sports law. But once I had been out of law school for a year or two, I started thinking about creating my own niche in the legal field and I kept revisiting the idea of a sports law practice. Initially, I joined the Sports Lawyers Association, attended its annual seminar, and attended a few other seminars on sports law. I also set up some informational interviews with people in the field. I was making some progress, but it was slower than I would’ve liked – so I started my blog, Connecticut Sports Law.
When and why did you decide to start your own sports law website?
I decided to start Connecticut Sports Law in early 2008 with a few goals in mind. Generally speaking, I had the idea that sports fans wanted more in-depth coverage of legal and business issues that affect their favorite sports. I didn’t think that there was a website that provided legal analysis geared to non-lawyers and everyday sports fans, and I wanted to fill that void. Specifically, I sought to bolster my expertise by writing about legal issues in sports and also use the blog to help connect me with potential clients.
You represent a minor league hockey team, what are some unique challenges to dealing with a team? Do you have to know a bit about everything to be a general counsel?
Similar to any other client, it is key to understand the client’s business and goals. For a minor league hockey team, it’s no different – you need to understand the team’s on-ice and off-ice goals, the league, and the community in which the team plays to provide proper representation. The legal issues that arise can be very diverse, so you need to have a handle on multiple areas of law.
Will paying college athletes ever happen? Is it a good idea?
I recently gave a lecture to a group of high school students and called this the $771 million question – $771 million being the approximate amount of television revenue that the NCAA men’s basketball tournament produced this year. There is clearly a shift in collegiate athletics to the point where people are at least considering the idea and I do think that some changes are on the horizon. It is hard to justify making these enormous sums of money from the players’ work and not compensating the players. Although a pay-for-play system might be difficult to implement, the fact that it would be difficult should not prevent it.
The issues raised by O’Bannon v. NCAA are also important to this discussion. Should former players, no longer in school, be paid when the NCAA or one of its licensees uses the images of these players for commercial gain? This group must be compensated.
What are the most common eligibility issues/obstacles that collegiate student-athletes face?
Besides academics, student-athletes are constantly having issues with transfers, especially with obtaining a release from their original school. And high school athletes entering college must deal with the National Letter of Intent.
The National Federation of State High School Associations just changed its policy regarding metal bats for high school baseball. Can you talk about the new rules, and your opinion on whether it was necessary?
I used to go to Cape Cod every summer growing up and always thought it was cool that the Cape Cod League used wood bats. Any move towards wood bats, or bats that simulate wood, is a positive development. Metal bat technology advanced to the point where safety was compromised and many baseball people would probably tell you that to some extent it changed the nature of the game.
Concussion prevention is another hot topic in high school athletics. How are schools/districts constructing procedures to provide for safety and avoid liability in this field?
Some states are passing laws that take the decisions away from local school districts regarding concussions. Regardless, the key is to educate the coaches, players and parents on the signs of a concussion and implement written guidelines to ensure that a player isn’t allowed back on the field too early.
What are some of the emerging legal issues in high school sports most people don’t realize yet?
Recruiting and related issues including recruiting services, sports camps and the interplay with NCAA regulations are hot topics. Although it may not be a legal issue, there are major changes occurring in high school sports, as more students are participating on club and premier teams and less on school teams. Specialization, where a student plays one sports all year, is also a growing trend.
What is your favorite part of your job?
Working with people who are as passionate about sports as I am.