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Sports Attorneys and Contracts
by Danielle D. Hansen, J.D.
The world of professional sports can be a stereotypically mysterious realm for some females, but in my case-having grown up with two brothers-this wasn't necessarily the case. Even to a casual sports fan, there are some basic things we all know, one of which is that most pro athletes are well paid. And with those high salaries come some fairly complex contracts, which in turn require attorneys.
Now the basic sports attorney who represents individual athletes in their contracts is an agent. The sports agent looks out for the best interest of his client, including getting him the best deal. This best deal rarely simply means the most amount of money, which we will get into a little later.
Besides having a sports attorney (agent), many pro athletes these days are employing other attorneys as well. The headlines are full of unfortunate stories about pros who have run into legal trouble, from drugs to assault, gambling to sexual offenses. It's a sad fact that many athletes have had to retain defense counselors in addition to their agents.
There are also less common circumstances where athletes need attorneys for specialized events. These affairs are not in the realm of the agents, so special counsels must be brought in. Take the case of Ricky Williams, for example. He was a Miami Dolphin running back who retired at the beginning of the season. And now that he wants to un-retire and return to the National Football League, he's had to retain counsel to look into how to do so. It's an overly specific situation where his agent is inexperienced to some degree, and breach of contract, repayment fees, and labor & players' union bylaws are all coming into play.
The National Hockey League is currently enduring a lock-out, a situation where the team owners are not allowing their players to begin the season due to contract disputes. The agents of individual players are fairly uninvolved in this situation. Instead, the unions have attorneys and the owners have attorneys. There is plenty of legal work to go around as negotiations continue.
We point these out to show examples of cases where attorneys can indeed be involved in the world of sports without necessarily having to be a sports agent. These lawyers must have a thorough understanding of the sports world and players' rights and responsibilities, but they won't be involved in the day-to-day activities that an agent might be.
So what might those duties be? What types of things are involved in a pro athlete's contract? Well, for starters, there's the salary. There's generally a base salary, and there are often bonus provisions. If a player becomes an all-star, for example, he may be paid extra. Other such bonuses we've heard of include extras for playing in a certain number of games, avoiding injury, hitting certain statistical milestones (such as hitting 40 home runs in baseball or averaging 20 points per game in basketball), among many others.
The agent, of course, tries to negotiate as high a base salary as possible, just in case the client does not reach the milestone bonuses. Injury clauses are a part of these contracts as well. No where else in the working world are employees (the athletes) subject to such daily wear and tear on their bodies as in pro sports. It's up to the agent to ensure that players are paid in full if they are injured on the job, just like in any other profession. So if a player gets hit by a hockey puck and has to miss a week while convalescing, the contract-and the agent-will make sure he is still paid.
These contracts also contain specific provisions for the dates an employee will work. A football player performs once a week on Sundays, but that doesn't mean he's only obligated to "work" on those days only. The practice schedules begin early each summer and continue on into the dead of winter. Players might only get one or two days of per week, if that, and these types of things are spelled out in the contract as well.
Unions also have their say in these contracts. One popular example that any sports fan has heard of is the no-trade clause. These are amendments to the contract that clearly state that a player cannot be traded unless the player himself approves it. Generally, these are clauses reserved for athletes who have a certain length of tenure with one team or within the league as a whole. The unions feverishly and regularly go to bat-no pun intended-for their members, and they are often responsible for getting clauses like these into league bylaws. Agents must work in close conjunction with the union in this regard, because an agent for a rookie player cannot demand such clauses through the league the way he can for a veteran.
Another duty of the sports agent is often public relations. There are unfortunate instances when a player refuses to report to work under his current contract, and this is generally called "holding out." A player often signs a deal to play for 3 years, for example, at a base salary. If that player excels and becomes one of the best in the league or if he sits on the bench in relative obscurity, then his base salary is still the same, as predetermined by the contract. So whether a player excels or is so-so, their contract is generally written to give them the same salary either way.
And the top athletes don't like this. If a player has great statistics and wants more money, he often will not show up for practice and will want the owner to re-negotiate the contract, and this, again, is where the agent comes in. A contract is already in place stating that the player will perform and also stating his salary. This is in writing. The agent can go to the owner and say, "My client scored more points than anyone last year, yet you still are paying him the same salary as a below-average player. Can we have more money."
The owner, of course, responds with, "No, his salary is set in writing. You signed it. Your client signed it. If you want more money, you should have asked for it before you signed."
The impasse is in place. The player holds out and does not report to practice or to games until his contract is redone. This is such an obvious case of breach of contract, but it's all but accepted in today's sports world. Sometimes the owners quickly give in, knowing they need the player to make the team successful. Other times owners resist. The player is under contract and cannot go to another team on his own in this circumstance. Some say the owners are stubborn in these cases, but is it really stubbornness to ask someone to do something that they have signed a contract to do? Not at all.
In these cases, the agent may go public, telling the media about how great his client is and why he deserves the money. The deserving part is rarely in question. If someone is a superstar, then they deserve the high salary that today's sports market affords. But no matter how much they deserve, they already signed a contract that says they will work for less money. A signed, sealed and delivered document.
The agent tries to get the public on his side in hopes that the fan base will pressure the owner to cave in and give a player a contract renegotiation. This often works, but sometimes it backfires as well, leaving the player to sit out the duration of his contract and earning Zero dollars. Not a good thing for an agent who has signed on to get 10% of that. What's 10% of zero again?
Speaking of money, this is one of the greatest benefits if you're considering becoming a sports agent. Even at a basic 10%, your salary get quickly shoot into the millions. With some superstars earning more than $100 million over the duration of their contracts, a quick look at the math will show you that you stand to collect quite a lot.
It's a tough business to break into, but the financial rewards make it worthwhile. There's also the reward of hobnobbing with some of the greatest and most famous athletes out there. Currently, LSU, for example, has a program for sports agents, but passing that class successfully is still no guaranty of your success in the business world. What it takes is hard work and knowing the right people. Then even more hard work. It's all about building your client base.
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