LETTER FROM BALTIMORE
They couldn't have timed it better. An NBA star is on trial for felony sexual assault. Another is to be retried for manslaughter. An NHL player stands charged with trying to hire a hit man. An NFL running back is alleged to have helped arrange a cocaine deal. (All of the above have pleaded not guilty.) And BALCO clients are all over the news. At the Sports Lawyers Association 30th annual conference last week at the Baltimore Hyatt, there was no shortage of ripe topics.
The premise sounds like the setup for a joke: What happens when you put 400 lawyers, agents and team executives in a room? The punch line: It yields three days of spirited and congenial discussion. Agents who usually engage in knock-down, drag-outs commiserated about the profession's subterranean reputation. Union leaders shared a panel with management. Marvin Miller delivered a manifesto on labor relations and got an ovation from big league executives. "We can talk without worrying about posturing," says agent Craig Fenech.
The inaugural SLA conference in 1975 was a sober, Blackberry-free affair, a handful of agents discussing estate planning, tax shelters and deferred annuities. The pace picked up a few years later when Mercury Morris spoke. Then serving time on a cocaine charge, Morris came to the Fort Lauderdale hotel with a prison guard. "When he said, 'I'm happy to be here,' " says agent Jack Mills, "he meant it."
This year's discussion docket ranged from testing for designer drugs, to ethical considerations when athletes run afoul of the law, to negotiating nine-figure TV-rights deals. Fresh off their defenses of Jayson Williams and Ray Lewis, respectively, lawyers Billy Martin and Ed Garland shared some strategies. The most entertaining segment was Tulane professor Gary Roberts's recap of sports jurisprudence in the past year. Who knew that when Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil gave his oenophile kicker, Morten Andersen, a $500 bottle of cabernet sauvignon he was violating the salary cap? Or that the NASCAR fan who sent 530,000 e-mails to a Boston TV station that had replaced a race with a Red Sox game could incur a $2,000 fine, $36,000 in restitution and six months of home confinement? "You'd be pressed," says Richard Bloch, a sports arbitrator, "to think of an area of the law more wide ranging than sports."