by Irvin Muchnick
Any day now, Santa Clara University is expected to announce the lineup for the sixth annual sports law symposium, presented by its law school’s Institute for Sports Law and Ethics. I’ve attended the last four as a media spectator. I wrote about three of them in my recently published book, Concussion Inc.: The End of Football As We Know It.
This second Thursday in September, I expect to have better things to do. Here’s why.
Let’s concede from the start that most academic conferences are gas fests; all have ups and downs. But last year Santa Clara’s credibility cratered in the person of keynote speaker Paraag Marathe, president of the San Francisco 49ers. Marathe announced that he would not take any questions on domestic violence. Of course, this came at a time when the whole world was talking about accused woman-beaters Ray Rice, then of the Baltimore Ravens, and Ray McDonald, then of the 49ers.
“Missed opportunity,” tweeted Dan Coonan, then Santa Clara University’s athletic director, according to San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist Ann Killion.
In my experience, missed opportunities are the symposium’s metier. What I’ve learned most recently is that it’s questionable whether the Institute for Sports Law and Ethics (ISLE) even exists other than as the “virtual” entity staging the symposium. The most telling aspect of its business model is the “gold sponsorships” of the 49ers, the Oakland Athletics, and the San Jose Sharks. These are the very corporations with the least interest in free-wheeling dialogue on controversial subjects.
The university won’t disclose what the gold sponsors pay for their designation. Nor will Bob Lange, the 49ers’ vice president of communications. In response to a query, he called the symposium “one of many community-oriented organizations that the 49ers have supported.”
Asked about the Marathe edict to chill inconvenient questions, Lange said he couldn’t comment since he wasn’t there. He added helpfully, “Our organization and the NFL have been very clear that domestic violence has no place in society and needs to be eradicated.”
Talk long enough to lawyers in California and you’ll know how cynically most regard the state bar’s minimum continuing legal education (MCLE) program, which rubber-stamps accreditation for the Santa Clara symposium and scores of other events (some of them online). MCLE is like traffic school for moving violators who need to mitigate the penalty points on their driver’s licenses. It’s mostly a de facto affirmative action plan for consultants and usual-suspect speakers.
In that connection, let’s pause to note that one of Santa Clara’s “silver sponsors” has been a Seattle-based company called Law Seminars International. Absent better information, it seems likely that this is just a coordinator of the symposium’s speaker bookings, logistics, and publicity. The executive director of Law Seminars, Karl Craine, did not respond to multiple faxed queries.
In order to qualify its event for MCLE, Santa Clara doesn’t have to document the ratio in its content between penetrating legal analysis and professorial jock-sniffing. (49ers Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott was a keynote substitute speaker two years ago; much of his talk centered, with heavy rhetorical pathos, on the parallels between football and the military.) The school merely has to submit a form asserting that the activity relates to relevant legal subjects or has “significant and current professional or practical content.” Presenters “must have significant professional or academic experience related to the topic,” and the program must distribute “substantive written materials.” Finally, participating lawyers must document their attendance toward MCLE requirements, and the provider must file completed feedback questionnaires.
ISLE is a pretty cryptic outfit. Its website links to past symposium promos but has little other content. The institute is said to have been co-founded by the law school, the athletic department, and the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, and to have “a 32-member board [including] distinguished athletes and sports executives.” The university declined my request to name them. According to a press release from two months ago, the board has 25, not 32, members. But who’s counting? If you drill deep enough, you can find the names of Brandi Chastain, the retired women’s soccer star, and Brent Jones, a Santa Clara alum who played tight end on 49ers championship teams.
On three occasions, ISLE has handed out what it calls the “ETHOS award for contributions to ethics in sports.” Last year’s went to You Can Play, a Denver group fighting homophobia.
The most prominent website item is also the perfect representation of what I find so feckless about the institute: an educational campaign, assisted by Chastain, to get kids to sign a pledge not to head balls in soccer — on the grounds that the practice is deemed unsafe. Simultaneously, this initiative (a) distracts from the existential crisis of sports-related traumatic brain injury, which overwhelmingly means American tackle football; and (b) emphasizes the agency of individual self-reporting athletes, even when they’re children, over the responsibility of custodial institutions. [UPDATE JUNE 24: I mischaracterized the soccer pledge initiative, which is directed at administrators and coaches, not children. For a fuller correction of this, plus more on the general debate, see today’s post with my exchange with Jim Thompson of the Positive Coaching Alliance.]
The most passionate symposium speakers on the concussion problem invariably call for more, more, more: more jobs for certified athletic trainers; more state mandates that can only be met by hiring concussion-protocol contractors of dubious effectiveness; more municipal ambulance services on standby to treat and cart away kids injured in practices or games. The panels give no attention to the viewpoint that such “solutions” simply might not pencil out as societal priorities.
Youth soccer clubs that want to take the no-header pledge are urged to contact Mike Gilleran, ISLE’s executive director. Except … Gilleran is no longer the executive director. “I am now the athletic director at Archbishop Riordan High School in San Francisco,” he told me in an April email. “Don Polden, former dean of the Santa Clara Law School, is the new executive director of ISLE.”
Later, however, I was conversing on email with Jim Thompson, a regular symposium panel leader who is CEO of a Pollyanna group called the Positive Coaching Alliance. Thompson said ISLE planning is in disarray these days because it doesn’t have an executive director. He said Polden was its board chair.
Neither Polden, current law school dean Lisa Kloppenberg, nor the president of this Jesuit university, Father Michael E. Enge, responded to requests to clarify the confusion. The media relations office provided sparse answers to “those questions on which we are able to provide information.” The answers largely consisted of the statement “We follow Bar Association guidelines for continuing education.”
Thompson told me his panel this September will be entitled “Role Models, Mentors or What? The Challenge of Coaching in the Brave New World of Youth Sports.” The symposium is big on Brave New Worlds; last year’s had a panel on “The Brave New World of College Athletics.” The skittish old world of sex abuse in youth sports gets shorter shrift. Approached about including this topic, executive director Polden — or is it board chairman Polden? — promised to think it over.
The 49ers’ Marathe isn’t the only major symposium speaker to stifle dialogue. In 2010, National Football League Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith was a late scratch. The next year he was re-booked, and a posse of retired NFL players, paying their own fare, showed up for the express purpose of grilling Smith on the union’s poor pensions and disability benefits for legacy performers. On the spot, the symposium announced that the open microphone session following Smith’s speech was being canceled due to the program running behind schedule. Smith ducked out a side door.
Last year I broadcast in advance that I wanted to corner luncheon speaker Travis Tygart, chief of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, with questions about his former role as a lawyer for the Denver office of the law firm now named Bryan Cave — counsel to the USOC and USA Swimming. In that capacity, Tygart advised swimming in a number of cover-ups of sexually abusive coaches. Tygart’s most spectacular case, in 2002, involved Simon “Danny” Chocron, who jumped bail after pleading guilty to molesting both girls and boys at the Bolles School in Jacksonville — which just so happens to be Tygart’s prep alma mater. Chocron fled to his native Venezuela, where he coaches to this day. After Tygart served as USA Swimming “prosecutor” for a National Board of Review hearing, the organization banned Chocron but with no public announcement. (The banned list wouldn’t be published for another eight years, or until after USA Swimming chief Chuck Wielgus gave embarrassing and callous responses to abuse questions in national television interviews.)
After I arrived on campus to observe the 2014 symposium, a university flack approached to inform me that Tygart, too, was being excused from the open mic colloquy applied to other speakers and panelists. The spokesperson said I could submit written questions, which would be passed up to the dais. I decided, instead, to beat the traffic home.
No doubt, with its Good Housekeeping seal from the bar association and the largesse of the community-loving San Francisco 49ers of Santa Clara, the sports law symposium will roll on without me in the audience — and with or without the ethics.