When Tulane Law School first offered a sports law certificate in 1993, many did not understand why any law school would bother.
“No one even knew what it was,” said sports law icon Professor Gary Roberts, who launched Tulane’s Sports Law Program and is the former Dean of the Indiana University Robert McKinney School of Law and former President of Bradley University. “‘There are no jobs in it’, the faculty would say to me. Or, ‘there is no such thing as sports law.’”
Roberts, by then a tenured professor at Tulane, was teaching one or two sports law classes each year mainly because he enjoyed it. What he saw, and how he ultimately crafted his winning pitch to then-law Dean John Kramer and the faculty, was that “sports law was a way to teach contracts, civil procedure, antitrust, labor law and intellectual property law, evidence, even criminal law.”
It worked, and Tulane became the first law school in the country to offer a specialized certificate in sports law.
Since then, the Program has attracted hundreds of students and is now led Professor Gabe Feldman, the Sher Garner Professor of Sports Law and Paul and Abram B. Barron Professor of Law — who succeeded Roberts as program Director in 2007— with the assistance of Sports Law Program Manager Eric Blevins. It has produced such sports law luminaries as:
In short, the Sports Law Program alumni are now working in some of the most sought-after positions in sports, far exceeding expectations of what sports law meant back in 1993. Under Feldman’s direction, the Program developed an unparalleled suite of extracurricular opportunities to match the academic strength of the certificate program.
Tulane Sports Law students organize and host four negotiation competitions – in football, basketball, baseball and soccer – and a sports law-focused moot court competition, all of which draw competitors from law schools nationwide and high-profile judges from every corner of sports. In a mere six years, the student-run Women in Sports Law Symposium (WiSLS) has gone from a one-panel event to a two-day conference that draws hundreds. Tulane Law students also edit the Sports Law Journal and two sports law newsletters, host an annual Speaker Series, have organized Sports Law Interest Groups and much more.
Most recently, the Program has grown through a generous gift from Hertz Family Foundation, which supports it through the Tulane Center for Sport, an interdisciplinary hub that provides former athletes medical services and coordinates a variety of sports-related educational opportunities for Tulane University students and the community.
“Our primary goal has always been to get our students jobs in the sports industry. We knew that meant creating opportunities for them to meet with and learn from top sports executives and lawyers,” said Feldman, who joined Tulane Law's faculty in 2005. “Our sports law events have all been designed to educate our students, give them access to the best and brightest in the industry, and help them learn and hone the skills necessary to succeed in the industry.
The Tulane Sports Law Program’s growth is nothing short of inspirational.
Over the last three decades as Tulane built its Program, the sports industry has also seen significant transformations from an event and ticket-sales industry to a multi-billion dollar cultural and entertainment behemoth. Led by the explosive growth of technology, the industry’s seismic shifts include conflicts over broadcast rights, the rise of fantasy sports and legalized sports gambling, an increased focus on athlete health and safety issues, and the limits of the rights of college players, among other challenges.
With all of these changes, new legal questions and problems have arisen, creating a need for a new crop of legal experts to tackle the countless challenges in antitrust, contracts, labor, intellectual property, and other areas of law. As Professor Roberts predicted more than 30 years ago, the sports industry today intersects with virtually every substantive area of law.
Tulane proved to be well-positioned during these industry upheavals. By the mid-1990s, it became clear that Roberts and the law school had landed on not just an undeveloped legal niche, but a burgeoning field that was attractive to students. Roberts quickly co-authored a casebook that was used by some 40 law schools, becoming the go-to scholar on sports law. Almost as quickly, he was quoted in national publications on sports issues, and his papers were a hot commodity in Europe and the U.S.
Almost all of the major national law schools followed Tulane’s lead, Roberts said, and began to offer sports law courses.
“Sports law as an academic subject just exploded,” he said.
At Tulane, the jobs –and students—came in startling numbers. In the program’s first year, Roberts said, about 20 students indicated their interest in the certificate. Today, a full 20 percent or more of each incoming 1L class is heading into sports law and, unlike in 1993, their image of what that means is not limited to cutting lucrative salary deals as sports agents. It’s also drawing a significant number of women and diverse students to the field, many of them coming from college sports or marketing jobs prior to entering law school.
Warren K. Zola (L’ 92) was one of the pioneering graduates of the program. Visiting Tulane in the spring of 1990 from chilly Boston, he heard there was a class in sports law.
“That’s all it took for me to go to Tulane,” he said. “I was all in.”
He followed Roberts’ advice and took the professor’s sports law class, but wanted more. Roberts knew student involvement would be key to growing the program, and Zola was more than happy to help. With a few classmates, including Jack Senich (L'92), he founded the Sports Law Society.
The first task of the new student org: plan “some kind” of sports law conference to be held at Tulane, Zola said, though he “had no idea what to ask for, or how to put together a conference.”
How that first conference came to be is now the stuff of Sports Law Program lore, but a generous donor’s $5,000 ultimately brought in such heavy hitters to Tulane as NCAA Director Dick Schutz, Saints General Manager Jim Finks, top news broadcasters from the fledgling ESPN network and the athletic directors of various colleges, including Tulane's Chet Gladchuck, along with a list of scholars and academics who were just dabbling in sports law.
“It was a huge success,” said Zola.
By 1995, Roberts had worked a deal with the Sports Lawyers Association –where he served as president -- to allow students to attend the annual conference at no cost and, as an editor with the Sports Law Journal, he encouraged them to write for the publication—two benefits that remain key features of the Sports Law Program to this day.
“The people that I met at that conference to this day are still friends, mentors in the space of sports law,” said Zola, who is the Executive Director of the Boston College Chief Executives Club, a program of the Carroll School of Management at Boston College. He also serves on Tulane’s Sports Law Advisory Board, as a mentor in the Sports Law Mentorship Program, and frequent speaker at Tulane Sports Law events.
Another graduate from the early years, Tyrone “Ty” Thomas (L ’01) has in more than 20 years developed a complex sports law compliance and investigations practice through his time at some of the country’s leading law firms, most recently as a partner and Co-Chair of the Sports Industry Team at Holland & Knight.
Thomas said that Tulane opened doors that allowed him to gain one experience after the next in sports law. In his third year of law school, for example, former Vice Dean Robert Clayton hired Thomas with his local firm that was representing Howard University, which faced potential severe NCAA penalties in five sports, but were ultimately reduced to a NCAA probationary period. He spent months writing student-athlete and sports team appeals as well as research memos related to issues on student-athlete records, Thomas said.
“That was great experience for me,” said Thomas. “Those first opportunities to get some experience led to the next thing and the next thing.”
In 2005, when Clayton took a job in the Washington, D.C. firm of Mintz Levin, and impressed by Thomas, he encouraged his law partners to hire him.
At Mintz, Thomas’ career in sports law took off: He worked on matters involving high-ranking Division I athletic programs and new ownership groups of professional teams, where “I started to build connections in variety of areas in the athletics space.”
Thomas today has the dream career roster of clients: Those in collegiate and professional ranks, as well as celebrities, across multiple sports franchises and has worked on everything from trade disputes to name, image and likeness issues. In addition to his work on current high-profile college sports matters, he has represented entities in professional sports, including Major League Baseball and the Golden State Warriors.
In 2022, when Holland and Knight wanted to build up its own sports law practice, the international firm scooped up Thomas from Mintz.
Like Zola and many other Tulane Sports Law alumni, Thomas serves on the Tulane Sports Law Advisory Board, as a mentor in the Mentorship Program, and frequent speaker at Tulane Sports law events.
Just as Thomas was graduating from law school, Professor Roberts was “getting the itch to be a Dean, somewhere,” he said. At the same time, a young lawyer who had cut his chops in sports law at Duke University, Gabe Feldman, was at Williams & Connolly in Washington, working as a litigation associate and serving as the Deputy Director and Assistant General Counsel of the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team.
“We brought him down to interview, and as you can imagine, he was very impressive,” said Roberts. Feldman became the Assistant Director of the Tulane Sports Law Program in 2005, and its Director in 2007, when Roberts departed.
“It was a well-established program, thanks to Gary’s vision,” said Feldman. “My goal was to take it from its curricular beginnings to focus it on practical skills and professional development.”
To that end, Feldman has spent the past 20 years working with students to grow the Sports Law Society into the premier student organization in sports law that hosts a huge slate of annual events and benefits from hundreds of graduates who are top in the field.
That practical experience created a new crop of alumni that left law school ready for the practice of sports law.
Shauna DiGiovanni (L’15) knew she wanted to be in the sports industry, but she wasn’t the typical law student. A single mom in law school, she said Tulane “100 percent laid the groundwork” for her success today, where she is a Vice President, Business Affairs at William Morris Endeavor (WME), the global sports, entertainment and fashion agency.
DiGiovanni did all the right things in law school: she joined the Sports Lawyers Journal, was an administrative justice for the sports-focused Mardi Gras Moot Court Competition and was speaker chair of the Sports Law Society. After graduation, she went the M&A firm route, but it wasn’t long before her law school network drew her back into the sports law world. She became the Associate General Counsel & Football Coordinator with Roc Nation Sports, a global sports agency where she worked for several years before joining WME.
“There is no doubt that my education and that Tulane network helped me get to where I wanted to be in sports law and where I am today,” said DiGiovanni.
Another alumna, Chelsey Antony (L ’19) benefitted from the robust offerings the Sports Law Program had developed by the time she arrived at Tulane. Today, she is the Business and Legal Affairs Corporate Counsel for Players Inc., the for-profit licensing arm and subsidiary of the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA).
Like DiGiovanni, she joined all the sports law organizations, but took it a step further: She co-founded the Women in Sports Law Symposium with classmate Erika Cheung (L‘18) because they saw the need for a Tulane-alumnae network to support women entering the niche practice.
“That first year, we had a panel with three or four women who were in sports law,” said Antony. Today the WiSLS is a day-long affair with multiple panels that draws more than 200 attendees.
“That was a big step for us because now, the women in the Sports Law Program have support to further their careers with the sound advice from other professional working women in sports,” said Antony, who got her start with internships with the Minnesota Vikings and the New Orleans Saints while in law school, and went on to work for the New Jersey Devils and the Philadelphia 76ers before joining NFL Players, Inc. Last year, Forbes named her to its Sports 30 under 30.
Feldman took the sports law program from the classroom to the boardroom, growing a robust curriculum into an all-encompassing experience where students get to see “behind the curtain” of the sports industry and meet those leading it. Gone are the “Jerry McGuire” days when law students aspired primarily to be sports agents. Now each year, alumni and friends of the Program network with students in every area of sports, often recruiting them for summer jobs in positions as varied as broadcasting operations to team front office work, college athletics compliance, and employment law through sports law firms. Some do become agents within the nation’s leading sports agencies, too.
“In the past 20 years, there have been so many monumental shifts in the industry,” said Feldman. “Just the explosion of broadcasting to streaming and online gambling. How we consume sports has fundamentally changed and it created significant opportunities for our students, as well as challenges.”
Feldman and the Sports Law Program have capitalized repeatedly on these opportunities, including the founding of a student-run moot court-style baseball arbitration competition in 2009. And that was just the beginning. When Chris Robinson (L’18) and others wanted to expand negotiation competitions to include basketball, they not only received the support to do it, but subsequent cohorts of students have turned the basketball competition into the place to recruit legal talent for the NBA. In 2022, soccer became the latest negotiation competition event.
The versatility of the program has made an impact on students. Take Fields, the 2016 alumna who is Counsel at New Balance. She recently was part of the team that signed the first woman basketball player to the Boston brand's roster. As a law student, Fields landed internships with the New Orleans Saints and the National Basketball Retired Players Association.
“The exposure to different careers and opportunities in the sports industry that the Sports Law Program provided me was invaluable," said Fields. "I found all of my sports internships through the Program. The Tulane Sports Law Program's reputation and alumni keep companies interested in recruiting our students, and that’s a true indicator of its impact."
Another significant change, and one that Feldman immediately took on, was elevating diversity in gender and race across the Sports Law Program. Whether through WiSLS or pushing for greater inclusion through mentorship and recruitment, the Sports Law Program is among the most diverse within the law school’s offerings.
Feldman and others attribute the Program's growth to a true team effort, which is the program’s biggest asset. From early days with an unclear but exciting future, to the current nationally-recognized powerhouse, it has been on what seems an unstoppable trajectory. In celebrating its 30th, Feldman continues to see almost limitless possibilities.
“I’m proud of the growth of our Program. It has been a privilege to work with so many talented students,” he said. “One of the most rewarding parts of my job is to watch our students learn through the Program and then, years later, return as seasoned sports professionals to judge, mentor, or speak at the same events they once organized as a student. I love helping them launch their careers and have been thrilled to find that so many of our alumni and industry friends feel the same way. The business of sports keeps growing exponentially and I’m excited for us to keep growing with it.”