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November 15, 2009 3:24 PM

The Mike Webster Chronicles: A Semi-Regular Look at Sports and the Law

Posted by Brian Baxter

The National Football League and its players union have been butting heads for a few months now over steroid-masking substances, performance bonuses, and a collective bargaining agreement set to expire after the 2010 season.

In the past week, all three issues came to a head. Commissioner Roger Goodell traveled to Capitol Hill earlier this month to ask a congressional committee to change federal labor laws to prevent states from interfering with the league's efforts to enforce its policy on banned substances.

Goodell's trip was prompted by an Eighth Circuit ruling in September preventing the NFL from suspending two Minnesota Vikings players for taking a diuretic called StarCaps, which contained a substance called bumetanide that's barred by the league. (As we previously reported, the league was represented in the litigation by Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, the union by Dewey & LeBeouf and Minneapolis firm Greene Espel, and individual players by Crowell & Moring and Fulbright & Jaworski.)

While the league is appealing the Eighth Circuit's ruling, the NFLPA and its leader, former Patton Boggs partner DeMaurice Smith, are opposed to any congressional action.

The union received good news earlier this week when cocounsel Dewey and Weil, Gotshal & Manges and local counsel Lindquist & Vennum prevailed over the league's lawyers from Covington & Burling and Faegre & Benson in another Eighth Circuit ruling. The federal appeals court determined that the league had failed to show that U.S. district court judge David Doty had shown bias in his role resolving labor disputes between the NFL and NFLPA.

According to The Am Law Litigation Daily, league lawyers asserted that Doty had abused his authority when he overturned an arbitrator's ruling letting quarterback Michael Vick keep a $16.5 million bonus paid by the Atlanta Falcons. (Click here for a recap of the dispute by the St. Paul Pioneer Press.)

The court rulings take place against the backdrop of continued labor talks between the league and the players union. Goodell, the brother of Hess general counsel Timothy Goodell, has said he will personally attend the latest round of negotiations. (The league has so far rejected the union's call for a "lock-in" to help settle the CBA deadlock.)

Somewhat lost amidst the litigation and labor clamor is a University of Michigan report released in September on the disproportionate risk of dementia among former NFL players, which many associate to a high rate of on-field concussions. Zuckerman Spaeder partner Cyril Smith, who represented former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster's estate in a civil suit against the league's pension plan, recently wrote this op-ed for CBS on the subject.

When testifying before Congress a few weeks ago, Goodell defended the NFL's track record on head injuries and making the game safer for players.

DIVORCE (Mc)COURT

A month ago The Am Law Daily wrote about the divorce of Dodgers owner Frank McCourt and his wife, former team CEO Jamie McCourt and considered what the split might mean for the team's future. Community property laws in California require an equal division of assets in any separation, which could force a sale of a team valued at more than $700 million.

With the baseball season now over, it appears both sides are preparing for a legal battle. As noted by Robert Ambrogi of Legal Blog Watch, a blog called Dodger Divorce has already started to monitor the fallout from proceedings in the family division of the Superior Court of Los Angeles.

Court filings reveal that Jamie McCourt graduated from the University of Maryland's law school in 1978 and began practicing international and securities law in New York shortly thereafter. She then moved to Boston to practice real estate and family law, where she obtained a master's degree in business from MIT and eventually became vice president and general counsel of her husband's construction company.

The Boston Globe's Mark Shanahan has the story on how the McCourt's built their business in the Back Bay, as well as the alleged shenanigans that ultimately led to the breakup of their 30-year marriage. Jamie McCourt recently lost her court bid to be reinstated as CEO, and a court filing by her husband has Dodger Divorce predicting that Frank McCourt has the upper hand in the early innings.

But Jamie McCourt has retained an All-Star legal team that includes leading Hollywood entertainment lawyer Bertram Fields from Los Angeles's Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger, Michael Kump from Santa Monica's Kinsella Weitzman Iser Kump & Aldisert, and divorce attorney Dennis Wasser from Wasser, Cooperman & Carter.

Not to be outdone, Frank McCourt has turned to Bingham McCutchen litigation bigwig Marshall Grossman and firm deputy litigation chair Debra Fischer, Susman Godfrey's Marc Seltzer, and divorce lawyer Manley Freid from L.A.'s Freid and Goldsman.

There have been conflicting reports as to whether Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban--fresh off a drubbing of the SEC in an insider trading case--is interested in buying the team amidst the dueling McCourt ownership claims. None of the legal machinations have Dodgers fans happy.

"It's not good when you're getting your baseball news from TMZ," Mike Petriello, proprietor of the popular Dodger blog MikeSciosciasTragicIllness.com, told The Globe. "Everyone here is kind of horrified with Frank and Jamie McCourt."

POWER PLAY

The bankruptcy battle between the NHL and competing ownership groups vying for control of the beleaguered Phoenix Coyotes franchise ended last month with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom advising the league on its takeover of the team.

Waiting in the wings is Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft. The firm is advising an investment group called Ice Edge Holdings that is in talks with the NHL over a possible sale of the Coyotes.

Left out in the cold is Research in Motion billionaire James Balsillie, who had sought to buy the Coyotes out of bankruptcy court and move the team to Hamilton, Ontario. Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs told Canadian Business that Balsillie was rejected under a bylaw in the league's constitution, "because we concluded he lacks the good character and integrity required of a new owner."

Canadian Business notes that a previous bid by Balsillie for ownership of the NHL's Nashville Predators was rejected in favor a bid by William "Boots" Del Biaggio III. Del Biaggio currently is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to securities fraud charges in February.

Some other past NHL owners of legal note: Henry Samueli, Eugene Melnyk, Gregory ReyesSanjay Kumar, John RigasL. Dennis KozlowskiJohn Spano, Jr., Bruce McNall, and Harold Ballard. The only thing that compares to the tawdry history of NHL franchise ownership is the league's players union, whose general counsel stepped down earlier this month following a leadership crisis. The NHLPA this week appointed a constitutional committee to try and restore stability.

AROUND THE HORN

-- In an effort to clean up its scandal-plagued basketball and athletics program, Binghamton University (the undergraduate alma mater of The Am Law Daily) hired former New York Court of Appeals chief judge and Skadden of counsel Judith Kaye to conduct an investigation (her second assigned inquiry in as many months). Now Skadden's legal bill has been revealed--all attorneys will bill $520 per hour, a 20 percent discount off the firm's blended hourly rate. But it remains to be seen who will pick up the tab. A state school, Binghamton is reportedly looking for ways to fund the internal inquiry without using public money.

-- Covington senior of counsel and former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue has been named to chair an independent advisory committee to the board of director of the U.S. Olympic Committee. After rejoining the firm in December 2007, The American Lawyer caught up with Tagliabue, who in a keynote speech at an ALM conference urged lawyers to embrace innovation and client needs. (Click here for a copy of his remarks.)

-- Speaking of NFL commissioners, Squire, Sanders & Dempsey partner Frederick Nance was one of five finalists seeking to replace Tagliabue for the league's top job, before losing out to Goodell in August 2006. Now Nance is reprising his role representing the Cleveland Browns--the lawyer was instrumental in bringing football back to Cleveland in 1999--in an employment dispute with former general manager George Kokinis. Dewey global and sports litigation cochair Jeffrey Kessler, longtime outside counsel to the players union, has reportedly been retained by Kokinis.

-- The tragic killing of Connecticut football player Jasper Howard last month has thrust a family of Hartford lawyers into the national spotlight. Sibling publication The Connecticut Law Tribune looks at the solo practices of the Freeman family and how they've been affected following the tragedy.

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