Sports Law Perspective re: “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight”

*this article written in response to “Still the Greatest”, posted 10/6/13 on SportsLawBlog

As shown by the array of topics covered throughout this site alone, “sports law” is not conclusively defined.  Concussion lawsuits, labor union disputes, steroid-based grand jury indictments, and the O’Bannon v. NCAA class action lawsuit certainly fit the mold, but this emerging niche of the legal profession seems to have encompassed more and more over time.  So when I watched HBO’s new documentary entitled “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight” about the Supreme Court’s 1971 decision to reverse Ali’s Vietnam War draft evasion conviction[1] and a colleague of mine later referred to the case as “the greatest sports law story of all time,” I was intrigued and set aside some time to re-examine the reach of the legal profession subset to which this site is dedicated.

The Court’s opinion in and of itself makes no reference to boxing or sports whatsoever, but to say that the underlying story was free from sports influence is a message founded on misunderstanding.  First of all, boxing organizations stripped Ali of his heavyweight title and state boxing commissions suspended his boxing license on the same day that he refused induction into the military.  Would the New York State Real Estate Commission similarly revoke a realtor’s brokerage license the same day for the same offense?  Second of all, if the film’s portrayal of events is at least some adaptation of truth, Justice Brennan says in granting certiorari to hear the case that “Yes, that’s right; we are hearing the case because the Petitioner is Muhammad Ali.”  While traditionally the most secluded from public influence of the three branches of government, the Supreme Court may have indeed been encouraged to hear the Ali case at least partially because of his stardom, a force that perhaps even the most insulated of government bodies could not ignore and that ultimately helped Ali maintain his legacy.

Ali is not the only professional athlete, and in fact not even the only prize fighter that has received what could be construed as preferential treatment: in January 26, 2012, Floyd Mayweather, Jr. – known as much for his out-of-the-ring antics as his undefeated record and multiple titles in the ring – was granted a sentence postponement after pleading guilty to misdemeanor domestic battery charges in order to fight Miguel Cotto, who had not even been named yet as the opponent at the time of the court ruling.  While in Ali’s case, it may have elevated him to an appeal that he might not otherwise have been granted, and Mayweather experienced similar judicial latitude, other judges could just as easily take an athlete’s appearance in their court, and the surrounding press coverage, as an opportunity to make an example.  For instance, in contrast to the countless wealthy individuals that get to at least post bail and live under house arrest in the time leading up to an appearance in court, many legal analysts believe that former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez will never see the outside of a jail cell until his trial for murder — a position perhaps enhanced by the media outcry over his alleged actions.  In other words, an athlete’s fame can hurt his/her case as much as it can support it.

Aside from the outcome on a case by case basis, the overall effect of the overlap between sports and the law is undeniable: sports and its undying contribution to the fabric of this country have allowed many issues to reach the limelight that might otherwise go unnoticed.  The fascination that most of U.S. population has with at least some aspect of sports easily translates into off-the-field interest in the surrounding stories, some of which exist in the law sphere.

So what does that mean for the overarching question here, which is the true depth of the definition of “sports law”?  Truth be told, an ordinary DUI by an individual that perhaps played one season years ago for the Bengals (too easy) might not qualify.   On the other hand, would the Supreme Court have heard Ali’s case had he not been heavyweight champion of the world?  Likely no – the Champ was able to use his position as one of the most recognizable sports personalities in history not only to help his own cause, but to represent the interests of much of the country at a time when it was in complete disarray.  In those instances in which the fundamental involvement of sports or even just a sports figure affects the outcome or otherwise highlights an issue, even if the subject of the matter itself does not relate to athletics … that constitutes sports law in my book.

Will sports law ever be more than a 3L law school elective and a practice subset for those innovative enough to find a niche?  I think yes.  Some law schools around the country have expanded beyond student-rules “sports and entertainment law societies” and now offer sports law programs and/or certificates that synthesize the many broader fields of law that find their way into sports law conversations.  A number of the most successful sports agents in the country were at one time practicing attorneys.  And of course, any dispute involving the complexities of collective bargaining agreements or intellectual property licensing in video games, to name a couple, are fruitless without the assistance of a seasoned attorney with a specialization in the issues and a passion for the greater effect of the outcome.  Conclusion: 3+ years after its launch, this website may have a purpose after all.

[1] Cassius Marsellus Clay, Jr. v. United States, 403 U.S. 698 (1971).

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