Without question, N. Jeremi Duru is a sports law guru. The American University Washington College of Law professor literally helped write the book on sports law. In 2013, Prof. Duru co-authored one of the field’s premier casebooks, Sports Law and Regulation: Cases and Materials. Prof. Duru, who was the 2005 National Bar Association Sports and Entertainment Lawyer of the Year, also wrote the critically-acclaimed book about the NFL’s “Rooney Rule,” Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL. Suffice it to say, with two degrees from Harvard and a spot in a Spike Lee movie (seriously), Prof. Duru holds some major sports law street cred.
Yet with all of Prof. Duru’s accolades, it was a Temple University 3L who convinced him to look East for his next sports law venture — far East.
Han Gil Lee, who left his native South Korea at the age of 15 to attend high school in the United States and learn English, noticed that many Asian baseball players were struggling on and off the diamond while they transitioned to Western life. Reminiscing about his own experience adapting to American life, Lee approached Prof. Duru with an idea to form a firm that could help Asian baseball prospects make an easier transition and maximize their playing potential. Prof. Duru sent Lee to see fellow Temple Law professor Kenneth Jacobsen, who just so happens to own the Wilmington Blue Rocks Professional Baseball Club, a single “A” affiliate of the Kansas City Royals.
Soon, the trio founded Global Sporting Integration with the goal of revolutionizing how MLB organizations deal with foreign players with an eye on maximizing revenue from Asian players who are commanding hefty contracts with increasing regularity. With the opening of Spring Training one month away, we caught up with Prof. Duru to learn more about GSI and how the firm can help both players and teams.
How did the idea to form GSI arise?
Han Lee, a 2L at Temple while I was a professor there walked into my office and asked about ways to get into sports-related work. I suggested that he think about his particular talents and characteristics and how they might add value in the industry. Han is Korean, and he speaks Japanese and some Mandarin, and we talked a bit about the increasing presence of Asian players in MLB. I figured that would be the end of it. A week or so later he came back really fired up about the idea of helping Asian players with the transition to MLB. Han had come to the US at 15 years old as a foreign exchange student and he identified with the struggles of players trying to adjust to a new culture. Because he was so interested in the idea, I walked him down the hall to my friend and colleague, Professor Ken Jacobsen. Ken owns the Wilmington Blue Rocks, a Class A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals, and he’s got a ton of experience and a host of friends in baseball, so I figured he could help Han out.
The two of them tossed it around for a few months, met with a few folks, and ultimately came up with the idea of forming a consulting company. The three of us talked about it and decided we would go in together. Since then we’ve realized that American players going to play in Asia’s top leagues face similar transition challenges, and so we’ve expanded our focus to include servicing those players as well. Ultimately, we plan to expand beyond the Asia–US transition and beyond baseball, but for now, this is our focus. It has been a fun ride. We make a great team.
GSI has two lawyers and soon to be a third on its team. What skills do you think come from a legal education/training that are most valuable to your business?
I would say critical thinking as well as attention to detail. We’ve spent a lot of time really drilling down on the problems that face these players and how we might best address them, and we try to ensure that everything we put out is top-notch. As important as the legal training has been, though, an entrepreneurial spirit and instinct has been just as important. Ken really provides that. He has started a number of sports-related endeavors during his career and he’s had a lot of success. His instincts are outstanding.
On your website the tagline is “Adapt, Survive, Thrive.” What does that mean and how does GSI make that happen?
Asian players coming to the US and US players going to Asia are entering a whole new world. Everything is different: the language, the food, the norms of social interaction, the intra-team hierarchy, the level of aggression with which the game is played, even the baseball itself. These days, sadly, we tend to see athletes as commodities, but they are human beings. They can’t just show up in an environment that is foreign in every way and expect to thrive. They first have to adapt to their surroundings and gain a level of comfort as a person and as a player. Then the opportunities to thrive will be there. There are so many stories of talented players coming here from Asia and washing out in the minor leagues. When you dig deeper, you find out they were depressed and felt isolated and that they ate terribly and had no energy because in the small town where they played they couldn’t find food they were used to and couldn’t stomach Burger King all week long. The pitchers sometimes lost a pitch or two, because they weren’t accustomed to the baseballs used over here. It’s very unfortunate and very unnecessary.
GSI focuses on pre-departure preparation, language acquisition, nutritional education and support, cultural merging, training transition assistance, and same-language psychological support. We believe our program will help these players adapt and will prime them to thrive.
You have an extensive background with the NFL. How has your experience with football transitioned to baseball?
My experience working with the NFL has been very helpful. In the end, all of these teams — baseball clubs and football clubs — are businesses, and they strive to be the best. And the umbrella organizations, MLB and the NFL, both want to grow their respective sports. The similarities are substantial. In both contexts, if you have an idea that will help organizations attain their goals, folks will listen to what you have to say.
My relationships in baseball are not as extensive as my relationships in football, however, so it is wonderful that Ken has such strong relationships throughout the baseball community.
Where will GSI earn its income? Partnering with the league or teams…or directly from a player or agent?
We believe there are possibilities in all of these realms. Right now, when players under-perform and wash out, everyone loses. Players lose their careers, teams lose their financial investment, and these once promising prospects return to their home countries with a negative impression of playing in the United States. So, their networks in those countries develop a similar negative impression, meaning the younger players are less likely to strive to be in MLB, which cuts against MLB’s hopes of accessing these overseas talent pools.
So, we believe there is interest convergence here. MLB, its teams, and these Asian players all stand to win if the players have access to more effective acculturation services. We’ve been in talks with MLB executives, teams, agents and players about our services.
I imagine most sports fans think teams spend a lot of money transitioning foreign players already. So what is GSI going to do that is different or better?
It’s amazing how little attention is actually paid to players’ transitions. In baseball, there has been some improvement with respect to Latin players’ transitions, although those transition services are often not comprehensive. With respect to Asian players, however, much less is done. In some cases, a translator is provided and not much more. It is an even bigger concern on the minor league levels where there is less money. We definitely feel a substantial gap exists, and we think our services will fill it.
Han Lee, a current Temple 3L, is now CEO of GSI. How is a 3L able to pull this off?
Han is a great CEO. He is smart, enterprising, and has tremendous integrity. And his personal experience with the difficult transition to the US thoroughly informs our vision and mission. Maybe most importantly, he’s extremely conscientious and manages his time really well. I don’t think that very many students could get it all done. He’s a special person.
A bit off topic, but you co-authored a sports law textbook that came out in 2013. What was the process like putting that book together and how has it been received?
Working on the textbook was an incredible experience. I was working with three other law professors – my co-authors Matt Mitten, Tim Davis, and Rodney Smith – who had written articles and books I’d been reading for years, so to partner with them on the textbook was a thrill and was quite humbling. It was also a lot of fun to look at the body of sports law as a whole and think about how to most effectively present it. The book is in its 3rd edition and has been very well received. It was an honor for me to have been asked to join the book, and I’ve really enjoyed working on it.
“Sports law” in general seems to be exploding within the past few years. Why do you think that is?
Sports law is exploding because sport, in general, is exploding. It seems to produce more and more revenue and take on an increasingly international flavor every year. People are beginning to fully realize its potential as money maker and also as a change agent, and they want to get involved. It is a real privilege for me to work in the industry, and I know that Ken and Han feel the same way.