Pure dumb luck" is the explanation Jeffrey Pash '80, executive vice president of the National Football League, gives for his entrée into sports law. "I showed up at Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C., after I got out of school," Pash recalls, "and was assigned to work for a partner in the firm named Paul Tagliabue." At the time, Tagliabue was a senior partner in charge of the NFL account; when Tagliabue moved to New York to become NFL commissioner in 1989, Pash helped take over where the senior partner left o›. Later, in a move encouraged by his former mentor, Pash signed on with the National Hockey League, where he served four years as general counsel. In 1996 Tagliabue invited Pash to come to the NFL. "He's certainly had a lot to do with my professional development," Pash says of his off-again, on-again boss.|
Pash's aptitude for playing in the big leagues does not come from a youth focused on sports. "I played Little League baseball as a kid," he says, "and I played with the other kids in the street, but that's about as far as my athletic career went." On the field, that is. In the executive offices, Pash is now part of the biggest show in sports. In January, NFL owners approved the largest television deal on record: four eight-year contracts to televise the game with ESPN, ABC, CBS, and Fox for a whopping $18 billion.
The important thing, says Pash, is that the NFL spend these revenues intelligently. Major investments are being planned for the promotion and development of youth football, which has been losing ground nationally. And a department staffed by professionals to provide NFL players with financial services and employee assistance is already up and running. "We're moving away from dealing with players' issues on an ad hoc, player-by-player basis, and we're tackling debilitating behaviors such as drug and alcohol use, gambling, and domestic abuse head-on," says Pash. "It's a major step forward and a model for sports in general; it says that the league cares as much about how its players live o› the field as how they perform on it."
No matter how rich and compassionate it may become, the NFL still faces legal issues that will keep Pash on his toes. Pash and the league, for example, scored a major victory last fall in an antitrust suit brought by St. Louis against the NFL. The court threw out the case, upholding the league's rules on team relocations. But further challenges remain, including similar litigation with Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis.
Pash argues that such issues shouldn't be going to juries in the first place. "How much would you pay to watch a team play by itself?" he asks. "The only way a sports league has any product to sell at all is by joint action, which means you've got to have a series of agreements about who is going to play whom when and where, and about how you're going to divide up the money from tickets or TV rights or whatever." Pash worries that misuse of antitrust laws and the threat of triple damages will force NFL members to act against their own best collective interests. "That's the biggest legal challenge we face," he says. "It goes to the heart of what kind of organization we are." - Janet Hawkins