Sports and Entertainment Law a Win

From intellectual property to product endorsements, some local attorneys are specializing in representing athletes and entertainers

by | Jan 1, 2023

guy at sporting event

As an athlete growing up, Christopher McLean had dreams of a sports career. After injuries curtailed that goal, he found another path to work in the industry—law school.

When McLean, chair Kaufman & Canoles’ sports and entertainment team, started law school at the University of Richmond, he originally wanted to become a sports agent. The reality of paying back his student loans prompted him to accept an offer with the law firm, the largest business law firm headquartered in Southeast Virginia, as a business lawyer.

“I love Kaufman & Canoles, and I was coming home to Hampton Roads, so I jumped at it,” says McLean, who divides his time between Coastal Virginia and Northern Virginia. After spending a decade building his business law resume, he recently circled back to his first love by agreeing to help his company develop the sports and entertainment specialty.
“I realized that the firm needed to organize a team to be a formal player and go after this kind of work,” he says. “We’ve always indirectly gotten this work without pursing it, even though we weren’t holding ourselves out as having this expertise. But we have this business expertise and can apply it to the sports and entertainment world because that is big business now.”

While Coastal Virginia isn’t Los Angeles or New York, a surprising number of athletes and entertainers hail from the area. The 757 has been a virtual pipeline for top-tier talent to the NBA and other sports. Familiar names include Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, gold-medal-winning Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas, four-time MLB All-Star Justin Upton, Hall of Fame boxer Pernell Whitaker, dual-football-and-basketball star Allen Iverson, quarterbacks Michael and Marcus Vick and Hall of Fame NBA center Alonzo Mourning.

Entertainers counting one of the Seven Cities as home include musicians Missy Elliott, Pharrell Williams and Timbaland; comic Wanda Sykes; and actor Mark Ruffalo.

Athletes and entertainers need expert advice when it comes to negotiating contracts, controlling image rights and other intellectual property, managing their financial interests and handling litigation and any other legal issue that arises.

“We form relationships with the individuals that carry through the full length of their careers and beyond,” McLean says.

Virginia Beach attorney Lawrence H. “Woody” Woodward, Jr. of Ruloff, Swain, Haddad, Morecock, Talbert & Woodward, P.C., got into the sports and entertainment field through the back door.

“I’m a criminal attorney by trade,” he says. “Ninety- to 95-percent of my practice is criminal defense work, mostly in federal court. I got into the athlete business when I represented Allen Iverson when he got in trouble in high school.”

NBA’s Iverson, from Hampton, famously was arrested in 1993 when he was involved in a racially charged brawl at a bowling alley. Woodward represented the player in his appeal after he was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Iverson ended up serving four months in jail and was granted clemency by the governor because of insufficient evidence.

Woodward says that relationship morphed into one more typical of sports law—working on contracts and endorsements for Iverson and eight to 10 other athletes and sports agents, including Michael Vick.

Like McLean, Woodward says his legal work for athletes extended into areas unrelated to sports. “They need all the same kind of legal services that anybody else would,” such as writing and reviewing wills and leases.

Both Woodward and McLean say the changing media and technology landscapes have created issues that sometimes call for legal representation.

“Athletes, like everybody else in the world, sometimes say really nice, kind, smart things on social media,” Woodward says. “And sometimes they say things that aren’t so nice, kind and smart, and obviously their social media gets a lot more attention than the average person. It all gets magnified. Everything that somebody at that level does is newsworthy.”

When there’s fallout, such as a lawsuit, they may need a lawyer, he says, especially if there’s a consequence involving game time or sponsorships.

McLean says changing technology is creating new opportunities for athletes but also creating conflicts arising from image and likeness usage and intellectual property. An example, McLean says, is overlapping image rights when a college athlete with a product endorsement deal appears in media with a shirt displaying a university or company logo.

“The media landscape is changing almost on a daily basis,” McLean says. A recent advancement is the advent of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), unique digital assets, such as content or media, based on blockchain technology. This technology, used to sell rights to scenes from movies, music, photography, avatars or video game assets, allows buyers to claim ownership of the original copy of a digital file in the same way one might own original physical art.

“There are so many issues and so many possibilities,” McLean says. “The technology is still in its infancy. There are a lot of licensing and intellectual property legal rights to consider.”

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