Counsel at Sports Organizations Talk Preserving the Integrity in Athletics

No matter the organization, being a good corporate citizen often goes hand in hand with the goodwill of the brand, said Christopher McCleary, general counsel and chief ethics officer at the U.S. Olympic Committee.

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Working as an attorney at a sports organization is, in many ways, not so different from working at any other company, attorneys from the U.S. Olympic Committee and the National Basketball Association said in a panel discussion. Brand protection, they said, is top of mind for lawyers in most organizations, and when lawyers are tasked with dual legal and compliance roles, preserving the integrity of that brand is critical.

No matter the organization, being a good corporate citizen often goes hand in hand with the goodwill of the brand, said Christopher McCleary, general counsel and chief ethics officer at the U.S. Olympic Committee, while speaking at Ethisphere Institute's ninth annual Global Ethics Summit held in New York City. "Ethics problems, compliance problems, can become brand problems in every case."

This means there's a business justification to do the right thing, McCleary said, which is to protect the brand. But more than that, he added, there is also "an ethical, moral justification, which is: 'Let's help people be better at my company or in my league or in the conference or in the sport.'"

Just as with most companies, part of the equation for success at the NBA is to be able to sell a product, said panelist Steph Vogel, vice president, assistant general counsel and deputy chief compliance officer at the NBA. "At the NBA, we're selling something just like many [companies] are selling something," she said. The NBA is selling competition, she explained, and consumers want to be sure that the integrity of the sport is intact.

For Vogel, who has been in her current role since 2014 and is the first dedicated compliance professional at the NBA, one challenge is navigating compliance issues in a global organization. "It's a different perspective, wearing a compliance hat, to figure out how to partner in places where the standards might be different," she said. "We have our values, but we can't always export those everywhere in the same way that you're dealing with them when we're sitting in New York."

Vogel and the NBA also spend a lot of time thinking about online sports betting in connection to basketball's integrity.

The federal Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, for the most part, prevents states from allowing sports betting. New Jersey is currently challenging this decades-old federal law in two cases. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court asked the U.S. solicitor general to weigh in on whether it should take up the issue.

In a 2014 New York Times op-ed, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver pointed out that "despite legal restrictions, sports betting is widespread." As such, federal legislation should be adopted, he argued, that allows states to permit professional sports betting.

On Thursday's panel, Vogel reiterated the NBA's position that federal legislation to regulate online gambling in the U.S would be better than the current "large, underground presence" of sports betting. With that, Vogel said, the NBA also advocates for gambling awareness, making sure there's a minimum age requirement and geo-blocking for places where gambling isn't permitted.

"Given that integrity is so important to us, if you can bring it up to forefront, if you can have some good regulations around [online sports betting], you can promote the integrity of our sport," she said.

At the U.S. Olympic Committee, getting out in front of a problem not only protects the brand, but is important to maintaining the ability to self-regulate, according to McCleary, who joined USOC in 2015.

One example of this relates to reports that USA Gymnastics failed to properly disclose allegations of sexual abuse. USOC, in response, recently launched the U.S. Center for Safe Sport, McCleary said, adding that 'safe sport' refers to efforts around preventing sexual abuse of athletes or people in a position of lesser authority.

"This entity will be solely responsible and have jurisdiction over all of the Olympic organizations for any case that involves a safe sport violation," he said. "We're taking safe sport matters away from the [National Governing Bodies], away from the teams, away from us as an organizing committee, to avoid any possibility of the appearance of conflict of interest."

USOC reportedly also called for the departure of Steve Penny, CEO and president of USA Gymnastics, who announced his resignation on Thursday.

Originally published on Corporate Counsel. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Contributing Author

Jennifer Williams-Alvarez

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