Santa Clara Sports Law Symposium

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Yesterday, for the second straight year, I observed the Santa Clara University Law School’s annual Sports Law Symposium — their third. The event provided loads of good foundational information on topical issues in sportsworld dysfunction. To my pleasant surprise, the university’s Institute of Sports Law and Ethics has not skimped on the second half of its titular mission.

Last year I gently panned the conference for allowing one of the keynote speakers, National Football League Players Association boss DeMaurice Smith, to stray from the prompt, then duck out a side door before he could be confronted with public questions. These included my own on why the NFL retirement plan board won’t reopen rejected mental disability benefits claims which had been reviewed by board member Dave Duerson. (Famously, Duerson would commit suicide, after which it was established that he himself suffered from chronic traumatic encephelopathy — surely impairing his judgment and advocacy.)

This year’s Santa Clara confab was much more substantive, with fewer Kiwanis Club flourishes. I didn’t mind a couple of the eye-glazing presentations on such technical arcana as the state of right-of-publicity law; after all, this was a continuing education event aimed at professional practitioners.

I still feel the symposium falls short on open mic and public colloquy, largely because of time constraints. That problem can be solved by trimming the panels, which are overloaded with usual suspects. For example, Linda Robertson, a Miami Herald sports columnist, could hardly have been blander or more redundant.

The keynoter was Joe Nocera, the New York Times op-ed columnist who lately has become Taylor Branch’s baby brother in trumpeting equitable compensation for athletes in the college “revenue” sports of football and men’s basketball. As readers here know, I am sympathetic, having penned a piece on the subject for the Los Angeles Times Magazine in 2003. But I also have become skeptical of the reductios ad absurdum of this solution (Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports calls for paying the pipsqueaks of the Little League Baseball World Series). More importantly, I believe the labor-management model here distracts from the root pathologies of our national athletics system, which can be found in open amateur programs for ponderously professionalized niche, or wannabe revenue, sports.

That said, I appreciate the currency of this topic, especially when, as in Santa Clara, it becomes a bridge to examination of Paternoville and loss of institutional control — and soul.

And my old friend Ramogi Huma, head of the precursor union National College Players Association, was exceptionally strong in his presentation. The old warhorse Harry Edwards, whose 40+ years of scholarship and advocacy sometimes come off like a greatest-hits package, brought his “A” game to Santa Clara, and nailed the Penn State scenario as the logical end point of the sports arms race. Sonny Vaccaro, the repentant old sneaker company marketing specialist, delivered a stem-winding jeremiad.

Though disappointed that sex abuse was not probed in greater depth, I applaud the Santa Clara organizers for giving a reception speaker slot to Katherine Starr of Safe4Athletes. We will all be hearing a lot more from Katherine in the years to come as she builds her new program.

Irv Muchnick

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Concussion Inc. - Author Irvin Muchnick