Law Links - October 2014

Legal lessons from the sports world

A Buffalo Sabres hockey legend, on the ice and off, brought the expertise of his second career – in sports law – to a lunchtime gathering of students at the Law School on Sept. 24.

Gerry Meehan ’82 played for Buffalo’s NHL team for four seasons in the early 1970s. After his retirement from hockey, he practiced sports, corporate and immigration law in Buffalo, then served as the Sabres’ assistant general manager, general manager and finally executive vice president of sports operations. Now his Cardinal Sports Group, headquartered in Toronto, provides consulting services to sports teams, leagues and associations as well as athletes.

Adjunct professor Helen “Nellie” Drew invited Meehan to campus to speak with her Sports Law I: The Law of Amateur and Professional Sports class. He then met with about two dozen law students in the Cellino & Barnes Conference Center, giving his take on some hot-button issues in today’s sports world.

Concussions, for one. Meehan noted that “the NFL is the most visible league and also the one people take the most shots at,” but said all contact sports have wrestled with the issue. He knows the personal side of the damage that can be done, if not to the brain then to the body. Meehan recounted a story of unwinding postgame at an Allentown tavern one night after receiving an injection to dull the pain of a broken toe, when suddenly “the pain went driving straight through my foot where I got this needle. I couldn’t walk; my wife had to help me to the car. When the painkiller wears off, it’s pretty much like you just broke your toe again. In those days we didn’t challenge it, and of course the player wants to play and the guy behind him is ready to take his place.”

On the recent controversy over the National Football League’s handling of players accused of domestic abuse and child abuse, Meehan said the league is in a catch-22 situation. “If they don’t do something about these abuse situations, they’re challenged by all the people who say you’re the moral custodian of this league,” he said. “But that argues against the rights of these individuals to due process. If they’re suspended, it can be months, days or years before any trial. The suspension can cost a player millions of dollars, and this is a person who is not yet recognized in the law as a violator.”

The only solution to the seemingly arbitrary way in which such incidences have been handled, Meehan said, is “a rigid set of guidelines” setting out specific punishments for a range of offenses, from domestic abuse to poor behavior off the field. “In many cases, that’s the only way to get away from this discretionary kind of punishment,” he said.

“And lawyers should always be involved in making that decision. There needs to be a professionally trained lawyer-administrator on staff to deal with these issues with a clear, concise, analytical legal mind, and under the guidance of a collective bargaining agreement.”

One audience member asked about professional golfer Anthony Kim, who took out an insurance policy against a career-ending injury, with a tax-free benefit that has been variously estimated at $10 million to $20 million. Kim has battled a thumb injury, tendinitis in his wrist and a ruptured Achilles tendon. Within the confines of the insurance policy, the questioner asked, how can Kim prove that he can’t perform at a high level on the golf course?

“I’d say look to the documentation and see what’s behind the policy,” Meehan said. “If he can show he was insuring his earnings against possible career ending injuries he has a pretty strong case. Somebody had to do a calculation of what his potential earnings would be on the professional tour during the prime of his career.” Given the amount of the policy benefit, he said, “he basically intended to insure 20 years of earnings.”