The Wide World of Sports LL.M.s

A handful of LL.M. programs in the US and Europe are catering to students who want to pursue a legal career in sports—an exciting but competitive field.

Doping scandals. Disputes over Olympic sports. Transgender issues. 

Lawyers who work in sports law can and will deal with any of these headline-worthy issues and more. 

"In many ways sports is a microcosm of society," says Matt Mitten, law professor and director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University. "Take Bruce Jenner [now Caitlyn Jenner]. What if she wanted to participate in the Olympics now? We’ve traditionally said we’ve got male, female competition. There’s just a whole host of interesting issues out there," 

Marquette is one of a handful of schools in the United States that offers students the opportunity to explore these issues in the classroom through a sports law LL.M.  St. John's University in New York also offers an LL.M. in international sports law practice, while Arizona State University offers a business and law degree. In Europe, ISDE in Madrid, the University of Zurich, the University of London and Nottingham Trent University all offer sports law specializations. 

These programs cater to students who want to pursue a career in the wide-ranging world of sports. A sports law LL.M. might sound niche, but the industry is bound up in so many different aspects of law, from labor law to tax law to media law.

"It's so broad. It’s such a big industry. Virtually every area of law impacts the sports industry these days," Mitten says. 

To explore the industry's diversity, look no further than the career paths of the students who graduate from sports law LL.M.s. Mitten says he's graduated a student from Japan who returned home to look for a job at a Japanese sports arbitration organization, as well as the daughter of an NHL player who hopes to work for a law firm with sports clients and perhaps someday for the NHL itself.

Iciar Murillo Cruz, associate director of St. John's sports LL.M., says one of her students works for the Football Association of Ireland, while another works as legal counsel for the Russian Football Union. Alfredo Ruiz, academic coordinator at ISDE, said a student from Kenya joined the International Tennis Table Federation in Switzerland. 

At these programs, students study the tough questions affecting the sports world today. For example, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in July 2015 that testosterone levels are an insufficient measure of whether an athlete should compete in women's or men's competitions, a decision that followed a challenge from an Indian sprinter who was barred from a competition in 2014 after her hyperandrogenism left her with higher levels of testosterone than considered legal for female athletes. 

Of course, although sports lawyers must be prepared for a variety of different legal challenges, these different programs focus on different regions. Marquette's program, which is only available to international students, is particularly suited to Canadians, who want to gain a perspective on American sports due to the baseball, basketball, hockey and soccer leagues that encompass both American and Canadian teams.

St. John's program focuses on comparative law, says Iciar Murillo Cruz, which allows students to explore legal systems and issues pertinent to the EU and North America.  ISDE and other European programs, on the other hand, tend to attract EU-centric students. 

Why are there so few sports LL.M.s?

With so many different potential legal aspects for students to explore, why don't more schools offer sports law LL.M.s? Officials say that although sports law encompasses so many different areas of law, it's an incredibly niche topic for a school to invest time and resources in. 

"We spend a lot of money creating classes," Cruz says. "It’s risky, because it’s very specific, and not every law school is willing to take that risk."

It's also a risky field for students. Officials caution potential sports lawyers that this is a tight market. 

"It’s a very competitive field to break into. What if you’re coming out of law school, you just have that and nothing else? That’s even harder," Marquette’s Matt Mitten says. "Most people just have to be a good lawyer, just have to get lucky on it. It’s not like, hey, you get a sports LL.M. and you got a job."

Breaking into the market often requires a substantial amount of hustling and low-paid work to find a stable job. 

"Everyone wants the big thing, but to get there, most of those people start doing internships at a law firm doing arbitration and sports, or doing an internship in USA Track and Field," Cruz says. "You have to take the opportunities you have to do freelance, or work pro bono for a smaller association. You can kind of develop clientele and expertise, but can’t become the general counsel of the MBA right away."

But there's good news. The breadth of a sports law education is often transferrable to other fields, so if students are unable to snag one of those coveted positions working for the big leagues, they can seek work in other legal arenas. 

"Let’s say someone wants to go back to their home country," Mitten says. "They may want to do sports law, but if that opportunity isn't there, there are so many areas of sports law that we cover. You’d have a really good knowledge of intellectual property law, labor law, contract and tort, because there’s very little sports-specific law."


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