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Cuisine Bourgeoise: Sports not much of a getaway when the law intervenes

By PAUL THARP, Staff Writer

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Finding law’s intersection in daily life isn’t hard, especially for a legal reporter.

But even unwinding to watch television broadcasts of professional and collegiate basketball games, I find myself subjected to a swarm of legal terms and wonderment over the potential import of such terms.

Just before the start of the second half of the NCAA championship game between the University of Connecticut and Butler University, a broadcaster read the following disclaimer while the NCAA logo colored the screen:

“This telecast is copyrighted by the NCAA for the private use of our audience. Any other use of this telecast or any picture, descriptions or accounts of the game without the NCAA’s consent is prohibited.”

OK, protecting the telecast I understand, but the disclaimer purports to prohibit any pictures, descriptions or accounts of the game without the NCAA’s consent. So that means if I bought a ticket and attended the game, I would need the NCAA’s consent to write about it?

I didn’t bet on the game, but I will bet that thousands of descriptions or accounts of it were written without the NCAA’s express consent.

My wife fell asleep during the second half (an understandable outcome considering the substance of that contest). When she woke, I told her UConn won 53-41. I told her Butler made just 12 of 64 attempted field goals.

I didn’t get the NCAA’s consent before delivering my description or account. Am I going to be sued?

How many newspaper writers, bloggers and fans violated the NCAA’s broad copyright language by sharing descriptions or accounts of the game? How can a person even talk about the game without giving a description or account of it?

Maybe the NCAA can tell us.

Large organizations like the NCAA are advised to retain for themselves the broadest legal protection possible for their products. But broad thinking isn’t always best. Companies sometimes shoot themselves in the foot with it.

Companies that mark their products with expired patents, for instance, have been “shaken down” for as little as $500 and as much as $150,000 in recent months for “mismarked articles in a product line.”

But legal craziness in sports doesn’t always happen off the court. It’s just as common on the court.

With 6:15 remaining in the second quarter of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s March 27 victory over the Portland Trailblazers, Thunder player James Harden was whistled for a so-called “clear path foul” when Blazer Gerald Wallace tripped and fell as he sped up the court with the ball.

Although the replay showed the trip was inadvertent, the referees applied the “clear path rule” because no Portland defender stood between Wallace and the basket at the time the tripping occurred.

The “clear path foul,” implemented about five years ago, was designed to discourage defensive players from intentionally fouling offensive players who break away from the pack and have a clear path to the basket.

But the written rule doesn’t require intentional conduct. The NBA’s website provides this explanation: “If a fast break starts in a team’s backcourt and a defender fouls any offensive player when the team is going to score an easy basket, a clear path foul has occurred. When the foul happens, no defender can be ahead of the ball where he could defend against the easy basket.”

Sounds complicated, but all the foul rules are.

Under Rule 12, Section B. Personal Fouls listed on the NBA’s site, each of the 10 subsections contain several sub-subsections and are riddled with written exceptions.

The referees – the law enforcement officers – are vested with the solemn responsibility of applying these sundry complicated rules and exceptions to actions occurring in split seconds of time.

In many instances they are not given the authority view a replay in order to make the correct call. And for good reason: it would slow down the game.

And one of the purposes of the clear path foul was to speed up the game, to enable unimpeded clear-path breakaways which result in spectacular dunks, pleasing to fans.

And by God both the NCAA and NBA want to please fans.

So, at least in the case of the NCAA, it should let us talk about the game without feeling like we’re infringing on their copyright.

And they might remember, at least for this legal reporter, we’re watching to get away from controversial stuff like the law, not to be immersed in it.



Tharp is a graduate of the University of North Carolina School of Law and UNC-Wilmington, where he majored in English and minored in philosophy. Prior to joining Lawyers Weekly, he practiced law for six years.

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