Top 5 sports law stories of 2017

2017 was a big year for legal disputes which involved athletes, professional sports teams and/or professional sports leagues. These are the five biggest stories.


From a case that strengthened the powers of the commissioner of the National Football League to the conviction of former FIFA officials, 2017 was a busy year for sports fans interested in the law.

Sports don’t exist in a vacuum or on an island. Like any other facet of society, sports affect and are affected by the laws of the societies in which they exist. Fans can look back through history and recount moments in which sports produced changes to laws of nations along with remembering how sports were shaped by changes in the law. 2017 is a year that could be remembered for developments in many stories, some of them bigger than others.

In no particular order, the five biggest sports law stories of 2017 are:

Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension litigation

What happened: Before the 2017-18 National Football League regular season began, Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott for six games because of his involvement in alleged domestic violence.

Elliott appealed, and the suspension was upheld. The NFL Players Association then sued the NFL in state and federal courts, which the NFL was ultimately victorious in. Elliott ended up serving the full suspension although much later in the season.

Why it matters: The NFL’s legal victory further strengthens the league in disputes against the NFLPA or individual players. The precedent that was set in the “Deflategate” Tom Brady and Adrian Peterson cases were ultimately used in Elliott’s case. According to this current precedent, Goodell has almost unlimited power to dole out discipline as he sees fit, and players’ recourse is limited to the arbitration structure included in the current collective bargaining agreement.

Not only does this diminish the chance of players seeking relief from league discipline in court, but creates a problem in the balance of power in the NFL that is likely to be a point of contention when the next CBA is negotiated.

The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation shakes up college basketball

What happened: The FBI arrested 10 individuals working as assistant coaches for various NCAA D1 men’s college basketball programs along with one employee of German athletic apparel company Adidas on bribery and fraud charges. The fallout led to other individuals losing their jobs, like then-Louisville head coach Rick Pitino. The criminal trials against the individuals are ongoing.

Why it matters: If the arrests made by the FBI result in convictions, the individuals would likely face prison time. The convictions would be an undeniable proof of systemic corruption in college basketball.

It’s likely that the NCAA would levy its own sanctions against the individuals and programs involved. The NCAA could also look at ways to prevent the illegal activity from happening again, including more oversight and restrictions on relationships with athletic apparel providers like Adidas.

Legalized sports betting in the United States

What happened: A law passed by the legislature of the State of New Jersey and signed by its governor, Chris Christie, legalized and regulated wagering on sporting events. The law was immediately challenged by the four major professional sports leagues in the US and the NCAA in court.

The courts found the state law violated a 1992 federal law that made gambling on sports illegal in 46 states, including New Jersey. Through several appeals, Christie v. NCAA resulted in defeat after defeat for Christie. A reason for hope emerged late in 2017, however, when the US Supreme Court granted cert to the case and heard oral arguments.

Why it matters: The large question being decided upon by the nine justices is whether the federal law, PASPA, amounts to unconstitutional commandeering by the federal government. If the court determines that PASPA is unconstitutional that would theoretically validate New Jersey’s law and open the door for the other 45 states barred from regulating gambling on sports to do so. The sports betting industry which operates in the shadows in most of the US would boom.

Former FIFA officials indicted

What happened: Two years after multinational officials took part in the arrests of several FIFA officials, two of those officials were convicted on corruption charges. Jose Maria Marin and Juan Ángel Napout were the former presidents of the Brazilian and Paraguayan soccer federations. The jury is still deliberating on a similar fate for former Peruvian soccer federation head Manuel Burga.

Why it matters: Marin and Napout not only face possible prison time, but FIFA intends to seek restitution for the funds they have been convicted of acquiring for themselves via bribes and wire fraud. This development not only creates a strong incentive for current and future FIFA personnel to avoid similar corruption, but sets a firm precedent that the US has authority to prosecute and penalize FIFA officials regardless of their citizenship.

Minor league baseball players’ lawsuit put on hold

What happened: Senne v. MLB argues that Major League Baseball and its minor league affiliates are in violation of US federal and state minimum wage and overtime laws. The suit is in limbo as whether thousands of minor league players can join as members of a class is decided. How the case proceeds depends largely on whether the US circuit court certifies the class and the details of that certification.

Why it matters: If the class is certified and the plaintiffs are victorious, it could mean changes in minor league baseball. All minor league players would be entitled to federal and state minimum wages, along with overtime pay.

If the class certification is denied, and the suit dropped or if MLB is victorious, it would put to bed the issue of minor league compensation for the foreseeable future. A lawsuit attempting to affect similar change from an antitrust angle has already been dismissed, and this lawsuit seems to be the last best hope to force change.

2018 should be of interest as the conclusion of some of these stories is promised. Regardless of what those outcomes will be, 2017 was a busy year for sports law junkies.

Are there any sports law stories that should have been on this list? Let us know in the comments.

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