Carrying a torch for all things sports

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Colleen Graffy discusses a summer Olympics course designed for all things sports.

What do you think of when you think “Olympics?” For most of us, the Olympic Games conjure up images of athletes, gold medals, and the five interlocking rings symbolizing the games. But for 21 students from Pepperdine and five other law schools, the Olympic Games were revealed through the eyes of legal and media professionals and experts from both the U.K. London Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (LOCOG) and members of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC).

The two-week intensive program, inspired by the excitement surrounding the 2012 Olympic Games, was held July 2 to July 14 at Pepperdine’s London campus and included a focus on international sports law dispute resolution and management, in addition to the Olympic Games. Heading up the 2-unit course was Pepperdine law professor Maureen Weston who teaches Sports Law and has authored one of the leading sports law textbooks. “We wanted students who are passionate about sports and passionate about the law to realize all of the legal issues surrounding sports and the Olympics that are out there waiting for them to master,” said Weston. Co-teaching the course was Jeff Benz, a former championship figure skater, who previously served as general counsel for the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) and is an arbitrator for the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).  “We tried to combine theory with practice as much as possible,” said Benz.  “One assignment the students enjoyed was getting photos as they were out and about in London of potential ‘ambush marketing’ that could be infringing the trademark Olympic rings symbol so that we could discuss it later in class in light of the requirements of U.S. and U.K. law.”

One of the many experts to meet with the students was U.K. and international sports legal superstar Michael Beloff, QC, a barrister specializing in sports law.  Beloff described some of the headline-leading cases he had been involved in as either an advocate or arbitrator regarding doping and selection issues.  At the U.K. Anti-doping Agency, students learned firsthand how athletes find themselves facing disqualification as a result of cheating or inadvertent doping.  Such is the importance of arbitration in sports that a virtual “SWAT team” of CAS arbitrators are actually on site during the Olympics to immediately rule on any such disqualification issues so that the athletes are not denied being able to compete for the gold.

The Olympics are not the only time these sporting disputes take place, of course. Students heard from lawyers at Sport Resolutions, an independent, not-for-profit, dispute resolution service for sport in the United Kingdom, about the array of issues that need resolving—from famous professional athletes to small community sports organizations.  The session ended with students taking part in their own mock arbitration on eligibility issues before a panel of seasoned arbitrators.

Carlton Sims, a lawyer in Montgomery, Alabama, took the course for credit toward his master’s degree in dispute resolution at the Straus Institute. The program was everything I had hoped for—academic content, career advice, site visits, and great people!” Amongst the site visits was a roundtable at the NBA in London to learn how the sport of basketball is spreading globally through the NBA’s efforts, and a session at the British Olympic Association where Olympic torches throughout the years, including one from Berlin in 1936, were on display. Providing insight into the governance structure for U.S. intercollegiate sports was NCAA Infractions Committee member Brian Halloran who engaged students in a discussion on the comparative systems for sport in the U.S. and Europe.

A visit to the nongovernmental organization, Human Rights Watch, demonstrated that basic human rights issues touch the sports world as well.  Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch had called on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to make ending discrimination against women in sports a condition for Saudi Arabia’s participation in the Olympics after their sports minister confirmed that the country would not support women in practicing sports. The 2012 Olympics is the first to have a female athlete from every nation—now including Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations. Students were delighted to learn that the Saudi Arabian athlete making Olympic history is Pepperdine student Sarah Attar.

For many students the highlight was hearing from the legal team at LOCOG, including the general counsel and three of her deputies on the spellbinding journey from idea to proposal to winning the bid and finally, to the drama involved in actually putting on the London 2012 Olympics. Equally thrilling was having the USOC ombudsman John Ruger, USOC associate general counsel Gary Johansen, and USOC chief of security Larry Buendorf (who disarmed Squeaky Fromme back in the day as a Secret Service agent protecting President Ford), all share their insights as they prepared U.S. athletes for the opening of the London games.

No trip to London would be complete without taking in some of the sights and sounds. Students experienced a wide array of culture including a tour of Parliament and legal London after an overview session on the British legal and political system; a very English garden party and lunch at Middle Temple—one of the four Inns of Court; theatre including, of course, Chariots of Fire; an exhibition at the National Gallery in honor of the Queen’s Jubilee; and a trip to Stratford to see the Olympic Park from the new Westfield Mall viewing area. Ashley White, a JD student at Charlotte School of Law, summed it up, “It was a real adventure to have such a firsthand encounter with the sports world in Britain and gain insights into international sport issues. But equally rewarding for me was visiting London and experiencing the city for the first time.  It was awesome!”

*Associate Professor Colleen Graffy is the academic director of the London Program and director of global programs for the School of Law.

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