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Law in Sports


It seems to me that the more you watch sports these days the more it calls for legal thinking. I’m not trying to elevate the profession of lawyers, but I am trying to say the interpretation of the rules in sports has become a complicated matter.

Take the recent catch -or non-catch- involving Jesse James, the tight end of the Pittsburgh Steelers. That turned out to be the deciding factor in the crucial regular season game between the Patriots and the Steelers. For James to have a reception, it would have to “survive the ground.” Whether this makes sense or not, it is a different concept than is applied to a runner getting a touchdown by crossing the “plane of the endzone.”

Issues of rules’ interpretations are not particular to football. In baseball, for example you hear all the time about rule oddities. Even as a lifelong baseball fan, I’m forever surprised by arcane rules. Consider the following:

I remember the 2003 divisional playoffs involving the Oakland A’s and the Red Sox. Miguel Tejada, the Oakland A’s shortstop, was running the bases and stopped on an interference call against another A’s player. He didn’t understand the rule and was tagged out because of a clause in that rule stipulating that even if interference is called, it is a live play for all other runners. That allowed the Red Sox to win that game and that series, and they went on to play the Yankees. Maybe it would have been better had they not won because they wouldn’t have suffered the painful agony of Aaron Boone’s Game 7 extra inning home run. That was in the Yankees series that took place immediately after the Oakland series, many of you will remember.

The point is we are dealing with an increasingly legalistic society. It touches on so many different pursuits, including sports. So often we hear questions about the rules. It leads to discussions not just about the action on the field, but about applying a particular rule to the action. With replay, there is a built-in legal concept: the call is only to be overturned if it is clear to the reviewer that the call on the field was wrong. This is the same notion that an appeals court applies in deferring to a trial court’s finding or to the discretion of the lower court judge, the one “on the field.”

As a young law student, I heard an upperclassman, who was a big baseball fan, speak about a law review article on the infield fly rule in baseball, a rule grounded in legalistic thinking. The Common Law Origins of the Infield Fly Rule, 123 U. Pa. L. REV. 1474 (1975)

I guess I should say that I certainly knew then of the intersection of sports and law.

In talking about sports and talking about law, I’m thinking of arbitration. Arbitration is a term I first heard before I went to law school. It was in the mid-1970s and baseball adopted something where a player with a certain number of years of service in the “big leagues” could have his contract decided by an arbitrator. This would happen if he, or his agent, could not come to an agreement on a contract with his team. Yes, we have arbitrations in law. The difference is with baseball arbitration is that the arbitrator chooses either the team’s offer or the player’s demand and not in between. In law, we deal differently with arbitration results. The arbitrator is not confined to one number or the other unless the parties stipulate that this is what they want. (I’ve never seen baseball arbitrations used in personal injury cases.) Mediations are also different. Those are voluntary and the mediator doesn’t have the authority of an arbitrator. Mediations could be used in sports to bring the sides together and it would be useful, I would bet. Nevertheless, it isn’t used much, if at all. This merging of sports and law is quite interesting.

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