The Work

June 26, 2009 5:41 PM

The Bernie Kosar Chronicles: Fehr & Longing for Sports and the Law

Posted by Brian Baxter

The biggest legal move in the sports world this week was the announcement by Donald Fehr, head of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) for the past 26 years, that he will step down by March 2010.

After clerking for a federal judge, Fehr joined the Kansas City, Mo., firm of Jolley, Moran, Walsh, Hager & Gordon. He left in 1977 to become the MLBPA's general counsel. Six years later, he was named acting executive director after players fired Kenneth Moffett in the wake of a 50-day strike in 1981.

Under Fehr's watch, the average salary of a Major League Baseball player increased from roughly $515,000 in 1989 to $3.2 million this year. While Fehr molded the MLBPA into one of the strongest labor unions on the planet, his loyalty to the players' cause made baseball fans loathe him for his leadership during a crippling 1994 strike that canceled the World Series.

And then there were steroids. Fehr's resistance to a league-mandated testing program and his testimony before Congress on the issue (see below) was widely pilloried.

Whatever Fehr's legacy, his replacement is already in line. MLBPA general counsel Michael Weiner is expected to take over as executive director on Fehr's recommendation. (Click here and here for stories about Weiner, who joined the union's in-house legal staff in 1988.)

Weiner was not immediately available for comment, but The Am Law Daily caught up with Keker & Van Nest's Elliot Peters, who has been outside counsel to the MLBPA on the various steroid investigations by federal prosecutors.

"Mike is a totally down to earth guy, very sensible and practical, and certainly one of the smartest lawyers I've ever met," says Peters, who has worked with Weiner for the past five and a half years. "He also happens to be a huge Springsteen fan, as am I. I'm sure he'll do a great job in his new position."

A Tale of Two Quarterbacks (and Browns)

Michael Vick might be out of prison and making progress on a plan to reorganize his finances, but now the former NFL quarterback will have to exit bankruptcy on the advice of his local counsel from Virginia firm Kaufman & Canoles.

Vick's lead lawyer, Crowell & Moring litigation partner Peter Ginsberg, withdrew from the case last week after a federal appeals court in Atlanta upheld a $372,000 sanction against him.

The National Law Journal reports that Ginsberg sought to have a judge removed from a bankruptcy case of Evergreen Security in Orlando. A three-judge appellate panel of the Eleventh Circuit found Ginsberg's actions were in bad faith and suspended him from practicing in the Middle District of Florida for five years.

Ginsberg told The NLJ that he was disappointed in the Eleventh Circuit's decision. "We believe we properly represented our client against an abusive situation in the Florida court," he said.

For his part, Vick might have to content himself with getting his football career back on track in the fledgling United Football League, which will begin play this fall in four U.S. cities.

Any pass thrown by Vick in the UFL will be one more than that of Bernie Kosar. The former Cleveland Browns quarterback filed for bankruptcy in Fort Lauderdale on June 19. (No, the filing was not intercepted on the way to the courthouse.)

Aside from the $3 million that Bernie owes his wife, Babette, from a 2007 divorce, and another $1.5 million he owes the Browns, a few lawyers and law firms appear on a list of Kosar's unsecured creditors.

There's $725,000 due Coral Gables, Fla., lawyer James Ferraro, who owns the Cleveland Gladiators of the financially troubled Arena Football League (Kosar is president of the team). Another $88,000 is owed to Florida firm Ruden McClosky and $45,000 to Cleveland firm McCarthy, Lebit, Crystal & Liffman.

Court records show that Kosar's bankruptcy counsel, Julianne Frank from West Palm Beach firm Frank, White-Boyd, has been paid $50,000. But Kosar's bankruptcy wasn't the only legal issue plaguing the Browns as the team's much-publicized battle with staph infections in recent years finally caught up with the franchise in the courtroom.

Former wide receiver Joe Jurevicius, who was cut by the Browns earlier this year, claims that a staph infection he contracted in 2008 has cost him his career. The Plain Dealer reports that Jurevicius sued the team, the Cleveland Clinic, and two physicians on Friday, alleging that doctors were negligent and the team lied about the cleanliness of its training facility.

NHL Ownership Changes = More Lawyers

When NHL franchises change hands, or at least try to, lawyers start climbing over the boards for some ice time. An 80 percent stake in of the league's preeminent franchises, the Montreal Canadiens, was sold this week to the Molson family in a $550 million deal.

Our own hockey correspondent Zach Lowe reported that four prominent Canadian firms--Stikeman Elliott, Lavery, de Billy, Ogilvy Renault, and McCarthy Tetrault--had lead advisory roles for parties involved in the transaction.

There was a little more Tie Domi-esque testiness south of the border, where the league is locked in bankruptcy litigation with the owner of the Phoenix Coyotes, who wishes to sell the struggling franchise to a Canadian buyer. (Check out this league letter posted on the front page of the team's Web site.)

Lowe reported last week on the ruling by a U.S. bankruptcy judge precluding a Coyotes move to Canada before a bankruptcy auction for the team was held. Squire, Sanders & Dempsey financial restructuring chair Thomas Salerno, counsel to Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes, supports the bidding process but is skeptical about the viability of professional ice hockey in hot Phoenix. The NHL is being advised by its longtime outside counsel at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and Proskauer Rose.

Around the Horn

-- Clarksburg, W. Va., employment lawyer Michael Florio is giving up the legal game for the gridiron. In an interview with The West Virginia Record, Florio, who founded the blog in 2001, announced a new partnership with NBC Sports that will have him writing about the NFL full-time. Florio's wife, Jill, is of counsel with Steptoe & Johnson in Clarksburg.

-- The New York Law Journal reports that hiring a former baseball player to start a sports practice turned out to be a bad idea for Long Island firm Lawrence and Walsh. Richard Thompson spent parts of three Major League seasons pitching for the Cleveland Indians and Montreal Expos. He's now suing his former firm for wrongful termination in a case that's made its way to Nassau County Supreme Court.

-- Sibling publication Legal Week reports that British firm Denton Wilde Sapte has been appointed to advise Deloitte, which is serving as court-appointed administrator in the U.K. to collapsed sports broadcaster Setanta. White & Case is representing Setanta's secured lenders. On Tuesday ESPN picked up a package to show English Premier League games from the crumbling company.

-- We're not big racing fans, but apparently Formula One is in a crisis. Legal Week reports that F1 is struggling to stave off a defection by several teams seeking to set up their own racing circuit. Sidley Austin, Baker & McKenzie, Taylor Wessing, and CMS Cameron McKenna are some of the firms in the driver's seat.

-- From fake Russian army induction notices to tennis star Roger Federer, Proskauer Rose litigation cochair and noted sports litigator Bradley Ruskin has seen it all. The National Law Journal takes a look at some of Ruskin's more memorable cases.

-- Plaxico Burress's chances of playing this upcoming NFL season got a little bit better when a judge postponed a key hearing in his upcoming trial on gun charges. Burress's lawyer, Benjamin Brafman of Michael Jackson and P. Diddy fame, said his client likely wouldn't face trial until 2010. Another wide receiver catching a lucky break? Donte' Stallworth, who pled guilty to a DUI manslaughter charge and received a 30-day sentence.

We're not the first to say it, but Stallworth's lawyers--former NFL in-house attorney David Cornwell of Atlanta's DNK Cornwell and Christopher Lyons of Miami's Lyons & Lurvey--deserve some credit. Their client killed someone, albeit unintentionally, and got 30 days in jail and an indefinite suspension from the league. Mike Vick killed dogs, served nearly two years, and also received an indefinite suspension. We understand both cases are radically different, that's readily apparent, but it's worth having the debate: did Vick get railroaded or did Stallworth just get a good deal?

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