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December 8, 2011 7:40 PM

The Score: Big East, NFL, and Dodgers All Come Calling for Covington

Posted by Brian Baxter

Covington & Burling corporate partner Peter Zern is in high demand these days.

Big East commissioner John Marinatto praised Zern this week for advising the collegiate athletic conference on its addition of five schools. The Big East, a longtime Covington client, has been hungry to expand following the departure this fall of member schools Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and West Virginia.

Boise State and San Diego State will now join the Big East in time for the 2013 college football season, while the University of Central Florida, the University of Houston, and Southern Methodist University will be eligible for all Big East-sponsored sports starting with the 2013-14 academic year, according to The National Law Journal's Blog of Legal Times.

"Our relationship with Covington & Burling has been extremely beneficial and integral to our expansion discussions, as well as our television planning," Marinatto said in a written statement. "I would like to single out Peter Zern for his expertise, professionalism, and counsel over the course of the past year. Peter has been incredibly responsive to our many needs during some difficult times, and, along with his associates, has been available to us essentially on a 24/7 basis."

Marinatto's conference has also been embroiled in litigation with West Virginia over its attempt to leave the conference early for the Big 12 in 2012. The Big East, represented by Zern's Covington colleague Benjamin Block, filed a motion to dismiss this week a suit filed by West Virginia in state court in Morgantown on Halloween.

By expanding westward, the Big East preserves its status as a major conference following the defections of heavyweights like West Virginia, Syracuse, and Pittsburgh. Zern, who has handled television contract negotiations for the Big East, advised the National Football League in September when it negotiated an eight-year, $15 billion TV deal with ESPN. Zern also advised the NFL last week on the $760 million sale of the Jacksonville Jaguars franchise from current owner J. Wayne Weaver to Illinois auto parts magnate Shahid Khan.

When reached by phone late Thursday, Zern acknowledged that "it's been a great couple of months" for the corporate lawyers in Covington's sports group, which includes fellow partners Douglas Gibson and Bruce Wilson, along with a team of associates.

"[Handling all these assignments] has been a great problem to have, although it's really not a problem because we've got a deep bench," Zern says. "We've really formed a great team to cover all of this stuff."

Gibson is currently leading Covington's team that is advising the NFL on its bid to extend its billion-dollar TV deals with CBS, FOX, and NBC.

Just how much do Gibson, Zern, and their team get paid for their efforts?

Some of those figures were revealed in a bankruptcy court in Delaware last week when the Los Angeles Dodgers sought permission to hire Gibson and Zern as special counsel in their quest for a new TV deal. The NLJ reports that Covington has been advising the franchise in negotiations with FOX for its exclusive broadcast rights, the sale of which a bankruptcy judge approved late Thursday.

Covington lawyers are billing between $275 and $940 per hour and the firm received nearly $255,000 in the year prior to the start of the Dodgers' Chapter 11 case in June, according to a court filing by the firm. A declaration by Gibson, the lead lawyer on the matter, states that his billing rate next year will be $855 per hour. Covington is listed as one of the team's largest unsecured creditors with a debt of $193,000.

Another Tragedy at Virginia Tech Could Affect Penn State

Shockingly, the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Virginia, was the scene of another fatal shooting incident Thursday. Two people, one of them a police officer, were killed.

Ironically, the shooting came the same day that several top administrators from the university were in Washington, D.C., to attend a federal court hearing where the school is challenging a $55,000 fine levied by the U.S. Department of Education over its handling of a 2007 massacre that left 33 people dead, according to The Blog of Legal Times.

The BLT notes that the proceeding is the first ever involving a violation of the federal Clery Act, which requires all colleges and universities to disclose information about crime committed on or near their campuses. Any precedent in the Virginia Tech case could affect a pending Education Department review of Penn State in the wake of its child sexual abuse scandal, according to The BLT.

That scandal—stemming from the charges unveiled last month against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and two former university administrators accused of covering up Sandusky's conduct—could wind up costing Penn State millions in legal fees. The university's board of trustees have already hired Reed Smith and commissioned former FBI director Louis Freeh and his firm, Freeh Sporkin & Sullivan, to conduct an internal investigation.

Sandusky himself was hit with new charges this week when two more accusers came forward claiming that he had sexually abused them, according to sibling publication The Legal Intelligencer. The Sandusky scandal and a similar one involving an ex-Syracuse basketball coach, could force the NCAA to revise its bylaws, according to The Associated Press.

It's not just college sports coaches whose alleged crimes are keeping lawyers busy.

Former Boston Red Sox clubhouse manager Donald Fitzpatrick, who died in 2005—three years after pleading guilty in Florida to four counts of attempted sexual battery in the face of claims by seven men that he had molested them during spring training beginning in the early 1970s—now faces posthumous sexual abuse claims brought by two additional alleged victims.

The AP reports that while the statute of limitations for pressing charges against Fitzpatrick himself has expired, plaintiffs represented by Boston lawyer Mitchell Garabedian are pursuing claims against the team. Bingham McCutchen's Daniel Goldberg is representing the Red Sox in the matter.

The New York Daily News, meanwhile, reported this week on a lawsuit filed in 2009 against presitigious Brooklyn private school Poly Prep by nine former students who claim they were molested by longtime  football coach Phil Foglietta, who died in 1998. Poly Prep, represented by O'Melveny & Myers, was sanctioned earlier this year for destroying evidence in the case.

The Am Law Daily reported last year on one of the plaintiffs in the Poly Prep suit—Hong Kong–based  Simpson Thacher & Bartlett corporate partner Philip Culhane. Culhane spoke at length with The Am Law Daily about his decision to become one of the plaintiffs, who last year won the right to depose current and former Poly Prep headmasters and examine internal school records related to alleged abuse.

Around the Horn

—While the NFL enjoys labor peace and seeks lucrative new TV contracts, the league must also contend with a suit filed this week by a dozen former players in Newark seeking compensatory and punitive damages over its handling of concussions, according to sibling publication the New Jersey Law Journal. Seeger Weiss and Roseland, New Jersey-based Carella, Byrne, Cecchi, Olstein, Brody & Agnello are representing plaintiffs in the suit, along with New York solo Marc Albert. Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison is representing the NFL in concussion-related litigation, which includes another suit filed by 75 former players over the summer.

The Intelligencer reports that the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers and the nonprofit Allegheny Valley School Foundation (AVS) have won a trademark infringement case against a local T-shirt company. A federal judge ruled that the company's "Terrible T-Shirt" design infringed the team's "Terrible Towel" trademark, which is exclusively licensed to the Steelers by AVS. Pittsburgh's Brucker, Schneider & Porter represented the Steelers and AVS, while Roetzel & Andress represented the T-shirt company, according to the Intelligencer.

Thompson Coburn has hired former St. Louis Rams general counsel Robert Wallace, Jr., to head the firm's new sports law group. Wallace spent 30 years with the Rams before leaving the team in March. He expects to advise players, coaches, and executives, and clients on potential team sales, according to reports by the St. Louis Business Journal and St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The Am Law Daily reported last year on the lawyers behind the $750 million sale of the Rams to billionaire E. Stanley Kroenke, Jr.

Proskauer Rose's sports law group is advising Jefferson City, Missouri–based sports radio and television programming producer and syndicator Learfield Communications on the sale of a controlling stake to Los Angeles-based private equity firm Shamrock Capital Advisors. Proskauer chairman Joseph Leccese, who coheads the firm's sports law group, is working on the deal for Learfield, along with corporate partner Michael Callahan, tax partner Amanda Nussbaum, and employee benefits partner James Williams.

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