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Valparaiso sports law clinic keeps busy

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While a Sports Law Clinic at an Indiana law school hasn't gone to the Olympics since the 2006 winter games in Torino, Italy, it doesn't mean they haven't been busy.

Part of the reason the school didn't travel to China in 2008 or Canada in 2010 was they've been too busy with other work.

Professor Michael Straubel of Valparaiso University School of Law continues to work with students who represent amateur athletes, and the clinic's students have been compiling and maintaining a database of opinions regarding various sports and agencies.

While most of the cases involving sports agencies aren't precedent setting like they would be in a trial court, they can be used as persuasive evidence on similar cases and can also be studied to determine what the agencies have done in the past and will likely decide going forward.

Straubel said he hopes making the database accessible to the public and those who find themselves involved in the system will "level the playing field between the prosecuting agencies and the athletes," Straubel said via e-mail from an arbitration hearing in Los Angeles.

In cases involving amateur athletes, the defendants don't always have access to legal representation, and the system is set up in such a way that there aren't many options in terms of the kind of defense an athlete can use. For instance, in anti-doping cases, athletes can claim the testing methods were inaccurate or that they were unaware they were exposed to certain ingredients in vitamins or supplements that are otherwise allowable.

However, agencies who bring the charges are also the ones that administer the tests, making the system one sided, Straubel has said.

Among the governing bodies the database includes are The International Federation of Aquatics, The International Association of Athletics Federations, The International Federation of Gymnastics, The International Federation of Rowing Associations, The International Weightlifting Federation, The United States Anti-Doping Association, The World Anti-Doping Association, The Badminton World Federation, The International Canoe Federation, The Court of Arbitration for Sport, and The Sport Dispute Resolution Center of Canada, according to the clinic's Web site, www.sportslawclinic.com.

Those wishing to search the database can enter their e-mail address and up to five keywords. Straubel added the clinic is hoping to make the database easier to search and more accessible in the future, while keeping up with new decisions as they're published.

For the most part, Straubel said, they have been able to include decisions in the database, however not all the governing bodies publish their opinions, which has presented a challenge for the clinic.

Having the database has also helped the students at the clinic understand various changes in how the agencies react to similar types of cases the students handle for amateur athletes, mostly involving antidoping issues and often referred to the clinic by the U.S. Olympic Commission's ombudsman.

"This year we handled six cases," Straubel said. "One before the Court for the Arbitration of Sport in Switzerland, four with USADA, and one against a U.S. university."

The clinic's students prepare cases including pleadings and briefs, and they also handle the hearings under Straubel's supervision.

When going before USADA, students from the clinic and their professor have also faced an alum of the program: Stephen Starks, who speaks highly of the program's students and their work.

Starks and Straubel happened to be working on the same arbitration in Los Angeles the week of April 5, but neither could give any details at IL deadline.

When Starks was a third-year law student in the sports law clinic, he had argued against the USADA on behalf of an athlete. The impression he left on the USADA legal team in that case ultimately landed him his current job as the organization's legal affairs director, which he has been for a little more than two years.

Of Starks' approximately 15 cases in two years since joining USADA full time, he said he has prosecuted on behalf of his organization against the law clinic at least three of those times. And while a win is rare - the legal clinic boasts the only case where an athlete outright won the case the USADA brought against her - Starks said the clinic is always successful in terms of how they represent clients.

"Maybe not in terms of wins or losses," he said, "but the clinic always offers a solid defense. While the LaTasha Jenkins case was the only one they've won, that's not to say they don't provide high-level legal assistance."

He added that while he isn't aware of any other sports law clinics like it in the country, he can say with certainty that no other law school has had students appear before USADA defending athletes in cases he's handled since he's been there.

While he doesn't personally use the database - all USADA opinions are available on the agency's Web site and he has access to them internally - he said he would refer other sports law attorneys to look at the clinic's database.

From USADA's and the clinic's standpoints, he said everyone wants the students involved to have a fruitful experience. Ultimately he'd like to offer an internship for the students so they can see firsthand what his job entails.

He also likes reconnecting with the clinic even when it's on the other side of a case.

The relationship between Starks and Straubel is "more than civil," he said. "It gives me a sense of pride to see students in the position I was in a few years ago. ... I have to commend the performance of the law students. They're doing an exceptional job, in my view."

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