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December 11, 2009 6:10 PM

The Ugly Side of Sports: An Unsavory Look at Sports and the Law

Posted by Zach Lowe

The headline news in sports and the law this week hits close to the Am Law Daily's hoops-loving heart: The media campaign of Tim Donaghy, the former NBA official recently released from prison after serving time for betting on games (including some he officiated) and funneling insider tips to mobsters who made millions placing wagers based on that info. 

Donaghy has just released a book (creatively entitled "Personal Foul") which is part memoir and part accusation that NBA referees allow personal biases to affect their jobs and that the NBA encourages refs to "help" big market teams during the playoffs. As we've written before, the NBA has hired Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz partner Lawrence Pedowitz to head an investigation into the allegations Donaghy makes in the book. This is the second Donaghy-themed go-round for Pedowitz. The league hired Wachtell when the Donaghy case first surfaced in 2007, and the firm eventually billed the league more than $750,000 for an investigation that determined Donaghy's allegations were (mostly) false and that he was a "rogue" official. 

The report also concluded that there is no solid evidence Donaghy ever fixed games he officiated, though it did not go so far as to say the league could absolutely prove Donaghy never did so. But ESPN.com's TrueHoop blog is testing that claim in a series any NBA fan really has to read. To sum it up: Donaghy claims his knowledge about individual referees (which ref hates which coach, which official likes to make sure games are close) allowed him to pick against the point spread with a success rate of least 70 percent. But ESPN's research has poked some rather large holes in that theory. For instance, Donaghy's claim that big underdogs fared better when Dick Bavetta (the ref who allegedly preferred close contests) officiated their games doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Someone betting on big underdogs--teams picked to lose by more than seven points--in Bavetta-refereed games would have lost money during the years Donaghy was making his picks, ESPN.com's stats show. 

When presented with these findings, Donaghy essentially told ESPN he had a more sophisticated system and repeated his claim that he did not fix any games. 

Should we believe him? Does the league still believe him? Pedowitz has not responded to our inquiries throughout the Donaghy affair. We await the release of his next report.

Elsewhere in the world of sports and the law:

• The National College Athletics Association is investigating the role that so-called "hostesses" at the University of Tennessee played in recruiting high school football stars, according to The New York Times, which broke the story earlier this week. The hostesses (female undergrads at UT) aren't exactly a secret. They have an official club ("Orange Pride") listed in the football team's annual media guide that touts their role in promoting the school to visitors. But the NYT story says investigators are interested in whether the ladies traveled off-campus (and possibly very, very far off-campus) to visit with high schoolers, which would be a recruiting violation. 

The school has retained Bond, Schoeneck & King for advice in the matter, according to Richard Evrard, one of the firm's go-to lawyers for NCAA compliance work. Evrard, a former NCAA investigator himself, is already representing the University of Connecticut in an investigation into possible recruiting violations centering around hundreds of text messages (first revealed by Yahoo! Sports earlier this year) between a recruit and a former manager of UConn's powerhouse men's basketball team. That investigation, which UConn is conducting internally, is pending, Evrard says. The NCAA has not filed any charges. 

Evrard declined comment on the Tennessee hostess matter. Several outlets, including Sports Illustrated, have photographs showing at least one of the hostesses posing with players at a high school football game in South Carolina. Uh oh.

• At this point, it's probably safe to assume that both reality "star" (is that the correct title?) Tila Tequila and San Diego Chargers Pro Bowl linebacker Shawne Merriman probably regret getting involved with each other. The trouble for the star-crossed lovebirds started in September, when Tequila called the police and accused Merriman of domestic assault, according to this recap of their relationship in the San Diego Union-Tribune. Police arrested Merriman at the scene. Merriman denied the charges, saying he was only trying to prevent a drunk Tequila from driving. Prosecutors quickly dropped all charges, prompting Tequila to file a civil suit accusing Merriman of abuse. 

Now Merriman has hired Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky & Popeo partner Andrew Skale and filed his own suit in federal district court against Tequila. In the suit, he alleges (among many other things) trademark infringement. (That's right--it's an intellectual property case.) The suit claims that Tequila misappropriated Merriman's "Lights Out" trademark and posted it on her Web site in order to drive traffic. The suit also accuses Tequila of interfering with Merriman's right to do business by spreading lies about him on her Web sites. Tequila's alleged lies include that Merriman "sleeps with minors and forces them to take drugs" and that Merriman manufactures illegal drugs in his home, according to the complaint.

Skale declined comment, saying Merriman's representatives have not given him permission to discuss the case. 

• And finally: A big hat tip to the Sports Law Blog for pointing us to this little gem of legislation that passed through a House subcommittee earlier this week. The bill would prohibit any organization (such as, say, a television network or the NCAA) from marketing any college bowl game as a "national championship." 

Honestly? We could discuss the bill's First Amendment implications and the myriad antitrust issues we've brought up before about the NCAA's unique method of deciding a national champion (the Bowl Championship Series), but we've been down this road too many times before. 

Sadly, we have no words left to write about the BCS.

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