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Sports Law professor talks “Deflategate,” bridges interdisciplinary gaps

Penn State Law professor Stephen F. Ross created a unique classroom experience in his Sports Law class on Tuesday afternoon, bringing together the cutting-edge research and the world-class experience and resources for which Penn State is known.
Sports law professor Stephen Ross debates with labor and employment relations professors of practice Doug Allen and  Paul Whitehead.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State Law professor Stephen F. Ross created a unique classroom experience in his Sports Law class on Tuesday afternoon, bringing together the cutting-edge research and the world-class experience and resources for which Penn State is known.

Ross—an internationally recognized expert on sports law—is researching a law review article on the legal issues surrounding the “Deflategate” controversy, in which the NFL Commissioner suspended New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady after concluding that he was involved with tampering with footballs prior to a game.

Knowing this timely topic would be both valuable and interesting for his students, Ross structured his Sept. 13 course around his research into the relationship between labor and employment law, contract law, sports law, and the Deflategate case—giving his students an inside look at real-world sports law as it develops.

But, because of the vast interdisciplinary expertise available at Penn State, Ross was also able to craft an even more tangible exploration of these issues with help from two additional Penn State professors.

Penn State professor of labor and employment relations Paul Whitehead, who is also an affiliate professor of law and the former general counsel for the United Steelworkers, joined Ross and his students to serve as an expert commentator—which was especially valuable because one of the major precedents involved in Ross’ research are a series of decisions involving the United Steelworkers in which the Supreme Court directed judges to almost always defer to decisions by arbitrators.

The students in the class were also able to gain a deeper understanding of this issue through additional input from Penn State labor and employment relations professor of practice Doug Allen, the former deputy director of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA).

“Sports law is a very interdisciplinary field, so it was a huge resource for me, and my students, to have access to Professor Whitehead’s legal and professional expertise, as well as to Professor Allen, who was in the room at the NFL where this happened,” Ross said.

Ross began the class by laying out his research into the Brady case, explaining his conclusion that the judicial review of these players’s discipline should not follow the Steelworkers precedent.

“I respect your professor very much, and defer to him on many aspects of sports law, antitrust law, and many aspects of labor law,” Whitehead began after Ross concluded his remarks, “but I disagree with him.”

Whitehead went on to provide a detailed point-by-point critique of Ross’ argument, ultimately concluding that courts should defer to the Commissioner because that is what the union bargained for. Allen next spoke about his own work at the NFL Players Association and his first-hand experience with the elements of the law covered by Ross and Whitehead.  Specifically, Allen shared with the class why the NFLPA chose to acquiesce in Commissioner discipline with other bargaining topics having greater priority for players.

Between the three professors, who finished out the class by debating the various legal nuances involved, the students present were exposed to thoughtful and expert analysis from different perspectives, as well as the practical history and application of the issues at play.

“It’s great to have opportunities like this, because you get more perspectives and views on an issue than you might otherwise,” said Tyler Cloak, a student in Ross’ class. “It helps you develop a fuller understanding of the law.”

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