Addressing the sports consequences of the Disney-Fox deal

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As highlighted in this week’s Sports Law Roundup, Disney and Fox are entering into a doozy of a media deal that involves everything from movies to television shows to streaming platforms to sports programming. This transaction has Star Wars components, Hulu components, and Simpsons components that, rightfully, are making headlines. It would not be surprising, however, if some of the most visible changes for viewers that result from this asset purchase, for which approval by various supervisory entities remains pending, come for consumers of sports media.

In an article out today, Will Leitch sheds some light on how this sale may affect the sports-media landscape:   Continue reading

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Sports Law Roundup – 12/15/2017

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Here are the top sports-related legal stories from the past week:

  • Louisville basketball: The fallout from the FBI’s announced investigation of Adidas-sponsored men’s college basketball programs resulted in the termination of Rick Pitino’s  position as the head coach of Louisville’s team. That, in turn, spawned Pitino lawsuits against Louisville for wrongful termination and Adidas for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Louisville now has sued Pitino for breach of contract and negligence and seeks monetary from Pitino arising out of the school’s losses due to vacated wins, potentially including its 2013 national title, and other NCAA sanctions, lost donations, and other financial losses. Louisville’s complaint alleges Pitino admitted liability when he said in a post-termination interview that he knew about NCAA violations but did not report them and took “full responsibility” for his decisions to hire assistants who subsequently engaged in wrongful activity.
  • Television transfer: An announced transaction between 20th Century Fox and Disney involving the latter’s acquisition of more than $50 billion (exclusive of debt) of the former’s assets has potentially significant consequences for the entities’ sports properties. Included among the assets Disney (which already owns ESPN and ABC) is acquiring are all of the Fox Sports Regional Networks (e.g., Fox Sports Detroit, Fox Sports South, etc.) and the YES Network. Disney also is acquiring other substantial assets, including FX Network, Fox’s interest in Hulu, and all of Fox’s film and television studios, which would include the rights to film properties like “The Simpsons,” “Modern Family,” “Avatar” (for which one source reports there are four sequels in the works), “Deadpool,” and “X-Men.” In exchange, Fox shareholders will receive shares of Disney stock. In addition, a spinoff entity will take control of Fox’s primary national networks, including FOX, Fox News, Fox Business, FS1, FS2, and the Big Ten Network. The deal still requires approval from both existing entities’ boards of directors and shareholders, as well as government regulators.
  • Baylor sexual assaults: The flow of evidence of Baylor‘s apparently widespread sexual assault problems seems unlikely to abate anytime soon now that a judge is permitting discovery of sexual assault reports from students who are not parties to pending litigation involving the school, as well as records of third-party Code of Conduct violations limited to violations related to “sex” and is ordering Baylor to produce documents previously provided to independent auditors, those being “32,000 nonparty student records, and hundreds of thousands of additional documents, without regard to” relevance or federal privacy restrictions.
  • Gambler defamation: In June, an alleged “gambling guru” known as RJ Bell (real name: Randall James Busack) sued Deadspin (and its post-Gawker-bankruptcy owner, Gizmodo Media Group, LLC) and freelance writer Ryan Goldberg over an article Goldberg wrote and Deadspin published that was critical of Busack and which Busack alleges was libelous. On Tuesday, a New York bankruptcy judge announced that trial in the case will begin on Valentine’s Day 2018. An important legal question in the case is whether a provision in an order of the bankruptcy court overseeing the Gawker Media bankruptcy intended to operate as a release of third-party claims against Gawker Media writers applies to bar Busack’s claims against Goldberg, which is the position Goldberg takes. Busack contends that the release doesn’t apply to him because he didn’t sue Gawker during the bankruptcy and received no distribution from the Gawker bankruptcy estate. Gawker Media entered bankruptcy as a result of a prior lawsuit Hulk Hogan (real name: Terry Bollea) brought. The attorney who represented Bollea in that case also represents Busack in this case. On Wednesday, the judge, who previously indicated he found the release issue ambiguous, ruled that the release did, in fact, bar most of Busack’s claims.
  • Garbler defamation: Lou Holtz, former head football coach at Notre Dame and South Carolina and former football “analyst” for ESPN, has sued The Daily Beast and one of its writers, Betsy Woodruff, for defamation. Holtz claims that Woodruff’s article about Holtz’s comments during the 2016 Republican National Convention, in which she reported he said immigrants were “deadbeats” and “invading the U.S.,” contained information known to be false and caused Holtz to lose future speaking opportunities.
  • NFL Network sexual harassment: A former NFL Network employee has sued NFL Enterprises, LP (apparently the Los-Angeles-based television and broadcast arm of the NFL), Jessica Lee (allegedly a supervisor at NFL Network whose LinkedIn page describes her as the Network’s director of studio operations), and fifty unnamed defendants. The plaintiff’s lawsuit nominally is one for wrongful termination, but its most newsworthy allegations involve claims of sexual harassment, assault, and battery by other NFL Network employees, including former players Marshall Faulk, Donovan McNabb, Warren Sapp, Ike Taylor, Heath Evans, and Eric Davis and former executive Eric Weinberger, who now works as the president of Bill Simmons Media Group, which owns The Ringer.

Sports court is in recess.

Waive that flag: Close to the edge/Not right away (NFL 2017 week fourteen penalty update)

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In a time-honored sporting tradition, what started out as a historic trend soon may become merely notable. While NFL officials, through week fourteen, have thrown their penalty flags at a rate that would constitute an all-time* high, that rate has been falling as the season has worn on.

nfl penalty flag data 12-14-17

My note from last week still applies: 2017 now looks quite close to the prior peaks in 2015 and 2014. If things continue as they have this season, 2017 still will be the high-water mark for penalty flags in the NFL, but the week-to-week trend strongly suggests that that is not a reasonable assumption. That trend also lends some support to the idea that abbreviated preseason training leads to worse play early in the regular season.

* The NFL Penalty Tracker has data going back to the 2009 season, but I’m pretty confident that we still are witnessing the all-time high-water mark.

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Previously
Falling into a deep swell? (NFL week thirteen penalty update)
Good news but bad news (NFL week ten penalty update)
Stability of a kind (NFL week nine penalty update)
People are noticing (NFL 2017 week eight penalty update)
Is this still a thing? (NFL 2017 week seven penalty update)

Alberto’s favorite things (NFL 2017 week three penalty update)
NFL week two penalty update (2017)

The NFL returns with zebras on parade

Sports Law Roundup – 12/8/2017

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Here are the top sports-related legal stories from the past week:

  • Olympic doping: The International Olympic Committee has banned Russia from the upcoming Olympic Games in South Korea due to “systemic manipulation of the anti-doping rules and system,” although it will allow individual Russian athletes who prove they aren’t doping to compete under the Olympic flag and wearing uniforms indicating they are “Olympic Athlete[s] from Russia.” Additionally, twenty-two Russian winter Olympic athletes banned for life following doping violations during the 2014 Winter Olympics have applied to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to reinstate them. The upcoming winter games begin in February.
  • Gymnast abuse: In February, the Michigan Attorney General charged a doctor with ties to USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for gymnastics in the United States; Michigan State University; and a gym in the Lansing area, who already was facing multiple civil and criminal accusations of improper sexual conduct, with twenty-two additional criminal counts in connection with his alleged sexual abuse of young female athletes. USA Gymnastics and Michigan State terminated their relationships with the doctor following the earlier accusations. Some of the charges added in February involved victims who were younger than thirteen at the times of the alleged acts, and all of the charges are felonies that carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. On Thursday, following guilty pleas on three federal charges, a federal trial judge in Grand Rapids declared the doctor “a danger to children” and sentenced the fifty-four year old to sixty years in prison, the maximum allowable sentence. In determining her sentence, the judge considered statements from victims, including U.S. gold-medalists McKayla Maroney and Aly Raisman. The doctor still is awaiting sentencing on ten state-law counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct.
  • Charity fraud: Former NBA player Kermit Washington pled guilty to multiple criminal counts of making false statements on income tax returns and a single count of aggravated identity theft in connection with charges that he used charitable donations intended for a medical clinic in Africa for personal expenses. Washington allegedly induced donors, including professional athletes, to contribute to the clinic but spent the money on vacations and jewelry. In 1973, the Los Angeles Lakers drafted Washington fifth overall out of American University, the beginning of a ten-season NBA career in which he also played for the Trailblazers, Clippers, Celtics, and Warriors.

Sports court is in recess.

Waive that flag: Falling into a deep swell? (NFL 2017 week thirteen penalty update)

Something that I had expected might be occurring now seems from the updated numbers like it might, in fact, be occurring, which is that my imperfect flag-rate metric is both (a) continuing to fall and (b) now close to falling out of historic* range. Come look for yourself:

nfl penalty flag data 12-5-17

As a season, 2017 now looks quite close to the prior peaks in 2015 and 2014. If things continue as they have this season, 2017 still will be the high-water mark for penalty flags in the NFL, but the week-to-week trend strongly suggests that that is not a reasonable assumption. That trend also lends some support to the idea that abbreviated preseason training leads to worse play early in the regular season.

Obviously it would be interesting to track flag rates for each of these seasons on a chronological weekly basis. A project for the offseason, perhaps. Meanwhile, since the terrible Giants have been in the news recently, an interesting note that only one team (Carolina) has been flagged fewer times than the 2-10 G-Men.

* The NFL Penalty Tracker has data going back to the 2009 season, but I’m pretty confident that we are witnessing the all-time high-water mark.

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Previously
Good news but bad news (NFL week ten penalty update)
Stability of a kind (NFL week nine penalty update)
People are noticing (NFL 2017 week eight penalty update)
Is this still a thing? (NFL 2017 week seven penalty update)

Alberto’s favorite things (NFL 2017 week three penalty update)
NFL week two penalty update (2017)

The NFL returns with zebras on parade

Sports Law Roundup – 12/1/2017

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Here are the top sports-related legal stories from the past week:

  • Streaming data: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has ruled that ESPN may share an individual’s streaming device identification number and record of videos watched without violating the federal Video Privacy Protection Act because that information does not constitute “personally identifiable information” under that act. The First Circuit previously had ruled that such information could be personally identifiable information, especially where combined with geolocation data, but that now is regarded as the minority position.
  • Bird death: A Massachusetts appellate court affirmed a trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of a truck manufacturer and the owner of automotive-related equipment in a wrongful-death case brought by the widow of Mark Fidrych. Fidrych died in 2009 of accidental asphyxiation when his clothing became entangled in the equipment while he was working underneath his truck. The court agreed that the equipment was dangerous and could have been designed in a safer fashion, but, because those designs were not defective and the risk that led to Fidrych’s death “arose out of the addition of other components and the decisions made, and actions taken, by downstream actors, the defendants had no duty to warn of those dangers.”

Sports court is in recess.

A Word on SEC Championship Game Rematches

The conventional “wisdom,” if you can call it that, from the ESPN pundits is that Auburn so thoroughly dominated Georgia the first time around, that there isn’t much Georgia can do if they play again. If you watched the game, and I did, that is certainly the way it looked. Auburn’s defensive line dominated, their offensive line won the battle, Auburn moved the ball, Georgia didn’t, and they led the game 40-10 before a meaningless late touchdown. So… case closed right?

Well, that’s an interesting theory, or, uh… hypothesis, if you will. How does it hold up to further analysis, or, uh… data. Yes, data. Let’s see. Like many things in college football, the data is limited. Small sample size yada yada yada. The sample size is 7. But here they are. All of the SEC Championship game rematches in history (plus LSU-Bama in 2011, rematching in the national title game):

Year Teams Regular Season Postseason Difference
1999 Florida/Alabama Alabama by 1 Alabama by 27 26
2000 Florida/Auburn Florida by 31 Florida by 22 9
2001 LSU/Tenn Tenn by 8 LSU by 11 19
2003 LSU/UGA LSU by 7 LSU by 21 14
2004 Auburn/Tenn Auburn by 24 Auburn by 10 14
2010 Auburn/S.Car. Auburn by 8 Auburn by 39 31
2011 LSU/Alabama LSU by 3 Bama by 21 24

First things first, only 2 times in 7 rematches has the result changed, in that the loser of the regular season matchup won the postseason game. Those occurred in 2001 and 2011. However, perhaps the biggest takeaway is that 6 times out of 7, the game changed significantly. Only in 2000 was the result basically the same – that being a comfortable win for Florida both times. The other 6 games all went from a close game to a blowout, or vice versa. The average difference in score is over 19 points. Maybe the first game is not a very strong predictor of the second game?

Well, hold on you say. This is only 7 games. And you’d be right, it is a small sample size, but you work with the data you’ve got. Here, I can also add this list of bowl games that have been regular season rematches. Going back to the same starting point (1992, beginning of the SEC title game), there have been 14 such games, and only 4 of these 14 bowl games were won by the team that won the regular season game (excluding the 1995 Sugar Bowl, the “Fifth Quarter in the French Quarter,” because the two teams tied the regular season game).

So, still a small sample size. But the data certainly suggest the first game is not a good predictor of the second game. Not at all. Stated differently, the hypothesis that the first game played between two teams will be a reasonable predictor of a hypothetical rematch has very little support. Thus, when two teams play twice in the same season, the first game is not a good predictor of the second game. That is the “what.”

The “why” is just speculation. We don’t have any data that goes to the cause. However, I can guess as to some reasons. First of all, I’d simply say that the logic is wrong in the first place. Most fans seem to think that a football game is good evidence of something. It shows you who the better team is. I’d argue that’s wrong. Maybe a team’s 12 or 13 game record is good evidence (maybe it’s only so-so evidence). But I’d argue that one game isn’t good evidence of anything. Too many variables, too much luck. In other words, the first game might be a poor predictor of the second game because the first game has a significant luck factor, and so does the second game.

Other possible explanations for this phenomenon are psychological. The players and coaches from the winning team feel like all they have to do is not make any mistakes, and they’ll win again the same way they won the first time. They may have a hard time getting up for the game. The coaches may feel pressure not to change their scheme. After all, it worked the first time. Meanwhile, the second team is adjusting. Its players are angry, and out to prove the first game was a fluke. The opposite can also happen. Consider 2010 – Auburn may not have thought it was a great team during the first matchup, early in the year, when they beat South Carolina by 8. But after finishing the year unbeaten, Auburn was in a different mental state, and out to prove they actually were much better than a 3 loss South Carolina team.

Those are my two best guesses, but there are other conceivable explanations. However, the facts are what they are. And the facts suggest that if Auburn and Georgia play in the SEC Championship game, Auburn may not be as big of a sure thing as the media thinks. In fact, Auburn did get a number of apparently lucky breaks the first time around (fumbled punt, the “leaping” personal foul) which resulted in extra possessions. For whatever its worth, the computers mostly think Auburn would be favored by about a field goal and would have perhaps a 55-60% chance to win. That doesn’t sound very much like the first game. Based on the above, that probably means its exactly right.

Perhaps UGA fans should be cheering for Auburn to win this weekend, so they get a rematch, rather than playing Alabama for the first time.

Waive that flag: Good news but bad news (NFL 2017 week ten penalty update)

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The good news on the NFL-watchability front is that the penalty-flag rate is decreasing as the season wears on. The bad news remains that NFL referees still are throwing their flags with historically high frequency.*

nfl penalty flag data 11-16-17

Incorporating last week’s numbers shows that we’re settling into that 9.2 range. With seven weeks of games remaining, there’s plenty of time for the rate to continue to fall, so it remains possible that 2017 will end up closer to historical norms. Without examining week-to-week data from past seasons, I don’t have a sense of whether that’s likely to occur (e.g., if it’s common for officials to call fewer penalties as seasons develop).

* The NFL Penalty Tracker has data going back to the 2009 season, but I’m pretty confident that we are witnessing the all-time high-water mark.

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Previously
Stability of a kind (NFL week nine penalty update)
People are noticing (NFL 2017 week eight penalty update)
Is this still a thing? (NFL 2017 week seven penalty update)

Alberto’s favorite things (NFL 2017 week three penalty update)
NFL week two penalty update (2017)

The NFL returns with zebras on parade

What happened the last time the Lions played the Browns in Detroit

In a few ways, it’s irritatingly cumbersome to write about the history of the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns. Long synonymous with deep NFL failure, these two teams were very competitive and successful in that period of professional football that doesn’t count anymore (i.e., the pre-Super Bowl era), meeting in multiple NFL Championship Games in the 1950s. That lengthy historical leap isn’t quite a smooth one, though, since there’s a corporate continuity problem on Cleveland’s side due to team owner Art Modell’s controversial move and (sort of) transformation of the team into the Baltimore Ravens in 1996, with the “Browns” not returning to existence until 1999.

Additionally, for teams as old and geographically proximate as these two, the Browns and Lions meet only infrequently in the regular season. In the forty-seven NFL seasons since the NFL-AFL merger, Cleveland and Detroit have played each other just eleven times. Though they faced off only twice in the 1990s, there nevertheless was an effort during that period to drum up a rivalry of sorts in the form of “The Great Lakes Classic,” which was centered around preseason meetings– there even was a trophy, which, suitably, was modeled after the region’s most famous shipwreck, the Edmund Fitzgerald. The “Classic” fizzled, though, during a particularly unmemorable stretch for both teams:

Over the GLC’s 13-year run, the Lions and Browns were two of the three losingest teams in football, per Pro Football Reference. Over those regular seasons they ran out 29 different quarterbacks, gave 13 different skippers the whistle and posted a collective .339 winning percentage.

It obviously is tough to get excited about either of these teams on their own, much less when they’re playing each other. But a recent game in this series, the last one played in Detroit and the only one played in Ford Field, offered some real drama. Thankfully, the NFL Films crew captured it.

The 2009 season was Matthew Stafford’s rookie year, and he started ten games at quarterback for Detroit that season. On November 22, the Browns came to Ford Field, where, with 5:44 left in the fourth quarter, they found themselves with a six-point lead thanks to this blast-from-the-past play:

browns 11-22-09

Stafford now is the highest-paid player in NFL history, but, in 2009, Lions fans still were in the process of figuring out what the team had in its top overall draft pick out of Georgia. He’d soon let them know:

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The Lions will look to make it four in a row over Cleveland on Sunday. A win coupled with a Packers loss to the Bears (who knows) would give Detroit clear possession of second place in the division, which, in my opinion, remains winnable even if I refuse to buy into the hype train the national media runs out after Lions wins in nationally televised games. I’m thankful for the exposure, to be sure, but people are making way too much out of Monday Night Football wins over the Packers and New York Giants, two teams going firmly in reverse this year. The Sunday Night Football loss to the Steelers should serve as a strong reminder that the Lions have done nothing to demonstrate week-to-week continuity, and that red zone offense, in particular, remains a significant weakness. They’re only in the mix because of the poor quality of their divisional opponents. Here’s hoping they can capitalize on a weak nonconference opponent this week. In case you missed it, the Browns, at 0-8, are deep on the Road to XVI.