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Managing the Sport Business by Managing the Athlete

This article appeared last week in my Sports, Business & the Law column in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. Here is the link to the article on the CDLB website. A subscription is required, but a free trial subscription is available.

In the mid-90’s, I was the Communications Manager for the Motorola Cycling Team. It was a great job. Motorola was Lance Armstrong’s first pro team, and it was exciting to be a part of the international sport.

Very soon after starting with the team, I became distinctly aware that the stability of my job and personal livelihood were tied inextricably to the day-to-day judgment of the young riders, who were mostly in their twenties and had all of the temptations that come with being pro athletes. For me at that time – single with relatively few financial obligations – the risk was worth it (also, in my defense, I left for law school well before the systematic doping was known to me).

Most team managers, promoters, and sponsors, however, have much higher financial and personal stakes tied to their athletes and consequently have much more to lose. An athlete scandal or rule fraction can quickly derail the goals of even the most disciplined managers.

In the twenty years since my Motorola days, our firm’s sports law practice has afforded the opportunity to learn several critical lessons about managing athletes. A proactive management strategy usually is the best way to both avoid crises and manage problems.

Three recent matters can provide some guidance on best sport management practices:

Avoid the Self-Inflicted Casualty

The Moorhead Law Group, LLC recently represented an Olympic athlete who simply did not do the relatively easy and necessary steps to comply with the anti-doping rules. The athlete was taking a banned substance per a doctor’s prescription and was required to obtain a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) to allow her to continue using the substance under the rules. In her focus on training and excitement to be going to Sochi, she did not pay attention to the timeframe required for obtaining a TUE. The TUE administrative process can take several weeks, and the athlete waited until the last minute before leaving for Russia. As a result, she did not have the TUE when she inevitably tested positive in Sochi. With better planning, the athlete easily could have received the TUE from the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).

The lesson here is that, if you are managing or sponsoring a multi-million dollar team or event, sometimes it is critical to micro-manage all aspects of the athlete. An athlete might be so focused on going fast that he forgets to pack the right race equipment. It might seem like coddling, but when the success of an organization is at stake, nothing important should be left to the responsibility of a distracted athlete.

Don’t Let the Wolf Guard the Henhouse

The firm represented a second athlete who violated ‘code of conduct’ rules of the sport’s national governing body. In this case, the athlete, in his late teens, was tempted by late night distractions while at a Lake Placid training camp. His actions were not sport related, except for the fact that they occurred at an Olympic training center. The ‘code of conduct’ infraction was enforced as seriously as a violation of competition’s rules, and the athlete was suspended from competition.

The lesson for this athlete’s managers is that, no matter the leadership that might be shown in a race competition, young athletes are capable of poor judgment and potential trouble outside of the race. The athlete that wins the race because he took a calculated risk might also find himself in trouble away from the races because of similarly impulsive risk taking. Grooming athletes during their younger years can be a full time job, but the alternative may damage the entire team.

Apologize Quickly, Be Humble Often

In the above matters, both athletes readily apologized and acted with humility during their adjudication hearings. At her hearing in Europe, the Sochi athlete quickly acknowledged her failure to follow the proper TUE process and apologized. The Lake Placid athlete not only apologized but made a point of becoming a team role model and leader.

Contrasting these athletes with Lance Armstrong’s combative style against USADA, it is clear that a simple apology, contrition, and cooperation have the potential to greatly help an athlete during an adjudication process. Our firm’s two clients served their punishments and quickly returned to racing. Lance Armstrong’s former teammates named in USADA’s Reasoned Decision served their suspensions and have moved on. Lance continues his lifetime ban from sport.

These cases demonstrate something pretty basic: athletes are really good at focus, dedication, and sacrifice for their sport. However, if the manager does not manage the whole athlete, the sport and business goals of the entire team might quickly be derailed. While a better competitor might prevent an athlete from winning a race, failing to properly manage an athlete can sideline a career in sport entirely.

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