When Pro Sports Effect Social Change


The Fordham Sports Law Forum’s 21st Annual Symposium convened on March 24 with a dynamic group of front-office executives, player agents, legal scholars, and journalists addressing cutting-edge issues in professional and collegiate athletics.

The daylong event featured panels on “A Uniform Framework for the Regulation of Sports Betting,” “Pay for Play for Student Athletes: Applying Antitrust Laws to the NCAA,” and “Modern Challenges in Negotiating Collective Bargaining Agreements.”

During her morning keynote, Anastasia Danias Schmidt ’98, senior vice president and chief litigation officer for the National Football League, highlighted the myriad ways sports can be “a powerful driver for social change and an incredible platform for discussion on important social and political issues.” This is especially true with the NFL, the league that represents the most popular sport in America.

In 2014, the NFL responded to a rash of high-profile domestic violence incidents involving players, most notably running back Ray Rice, by partnering with the National Domestic Violence Hotline. The NFL committed $25 million over five years to the organization, and in the first year of their partnership 93,000 more hotline calls were answered, Schmidt said.

“The fact this is very visible in the context of sport, we’re hoping that this will raise more awareness, and leads to more interventions, more solutions, and more resources for people who want them and need them,” said Schmidt.

The NFL has also used its popularity to stand against off-field discrimination, Schmidt noted.

In response to Arizona’s Senate Bill 1062, the NFL threatened to move the Super Bowl from Phoenix in 2015 if the so-called religious freedom bill discriminating against LGBTQ people passed. Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the bill, and the game went on as scheduled, drawing an estimated 114 million viewers. The NFL had previously moved the Super Bowl from Arizona in 1993 because the state refused to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Schmidt said.

Individual athletes also have the power to challenge the prevailing wisdom of their time, Schmidt said, using boxer Muhammad Ali, tennis star Billie Jean King, and Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos as examples.

In the NFL last season, San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest of police brutality toward African-Americans became one of the year’s most talked about sports stories. Regardless of whether you believe Kaepernick acted right or wrong in kneeling during the national anthem, Schmidt said that his protest proved that sports drive debate about key societal issues in ways no other entertainment can.

The day’s second panel explored the potential of paying college athletes, via the ongoing Jenkins v. NCAA case in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Jenkins argues that the NCAA, along with universities and the conferences in which they compete, conspired to cap the value of athletic scholarships to room, board, books, and fees.

The suit, if successful, could allow players to receive compensation beyond their scholarship, both from universities, in the form of graduate tuition and greater healthcare benefits, and corporations eager to sign star players to endorsement deals, panelists said. The latter benefit for student-athletes would have serious implications on the concept of amateurism, which the NCAA contends is integral to its product. Jeffrey L. Kessler, a partner with Winston & Strawn LLP, who is one of the attorneys in Jenkins, gave the afternoon keynote address following a lively discussion during the day’s final panel about collective bargaining agreements.


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