Uncommon Counsel: The highs and lows of sports law

by Mackenzie McCarty09 Apr 2014
Sports law specialist and principal of Maria Clarke Lawyers, Maria Clarke, acts for some of New Zealand’s largest sports organisations and most prominent athletes. While she admits the remuneration isn’t as high as it is in other practice areas, Clarke says she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Clarke and her firm act for clients including High Performance Sport NZ, the NZ Olympic Committee and Paralympics NZ, as well as a few elite athletes (including Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell and previously Valerie Adams), coaches and individuals. They work across an incredibly broad range of sports as well, including: athletics, bowls, bike, gymsports, hockey, netball, rowing, rugby league, tennis, surf life-saving.

“Our work covers a wide range of areas including legal structures in sport…mergers and amalgamations of sports organisations, drafting and advising on constitutions, governance/Board advice, charities law, commercial agreements, privacy issues related to membership, sponsorship agreements, licence/IP agreements, sports event legal issues, as well as sports specific issues such as athlete agreements and the development of rules (and acting in cases related to) doping, match fixing, selection disputes, discipline/ misconduct,” explains Clarke.

When she started out as a lawyer 22 years ago, Clarke served as a junior lawyer in a family law team headed by David Howman, who’s now the director general of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

“David is passionate about sport and had a few pro bono sports organisations and athletes as clients as a ‘side’ interest. With the pressures of budgets on partners, he would often give me the work to do and I started from there. I remember it was the first time I had ever looked at the Incorporated Societies Act, which got but a mere mention at law school!”

Over time, Howman grew the number of sports clients he had and, when rugby became professional, Clarke says it changed the face of amateur sport and increased the need for legal advice, on a paid basis, for sports and athletes.

“In those days there was no such thing as sports law, but now the area of law is recognised as having its own jurisprudence,” says Clarke.

She says there are a number of important issues facing sports law at the moment, not least of which is ensuring that we have “adequate education, protection and rules” on matters like match fixing, corruption, betting, doping and supplement/illicit drug use.

“If we don’t take control of what is happening to sport in these areas then it will undermine the very essence of sport,” says Clarke.

Another growing issue, she says, is the impact of players associations on the development of athlete agreements.

“I am supportive of them but as some athletes are now working collectively with these associations, they have increased their bargaining strength and this is impacting negotiations for and the rights obtained, in many athlete agreements, especially collective ones,” she says.

However, while she loves her practice area, Clarke is quick to note that there is no expectation of or arrangement for free game tickets and other perks.

“If you work in sport in New Zealand, then you have to accept that it is not highly paid, nor does it come with lots of material benefits. The benefits are the people and the kind of work we get to be involved in. My role on the NZOC was as a board member but my term expired so I am not longer there, but now act for it on certain matters. Yes, I did go to the 2012 Olympics, which was the first one I had ever been to, but this was unrelated to my NZOC Board role. I took my family and it was a very special experience for them.”

Aside from her paid work, Clarke also acts on three international juridical commissions: The International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) and, just this week, she was appointed to the IOC Sport and Law Commission.

“These commissions are very enjoyable and stimulating, as it enables me to work with other sports lawyers around the world and gain a greater sense of the global issues in sport,” she says.

Clarke is also involved in ANZSLA (Australia and NZ Sports Law Association) and is currently helping to organising a symposium on 16 May 2014, in Auckland, on various legal and others issues in sport.

“I also mentor a couple of women to support them in obtaining leadership positions in sport and in corporate positions, which I also enjoy,” says Clarke.