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NFL Season Gets Under Way With New Lawyers Filling Ranks (1)

Sept. 9, 2021, 9:30 PMUpdated: Sept. 10, 2021, 2:48 PM

The National Football League’s season kicked off Thursday night with the first of dozens of rookies taking the field, and several lawyers—many also in their first year with various teams—looking on.

The Washington Football Team, no stranger to legal entanglements as it dropped its controversial former nickname last year, hired former Davis Wright Tremaine associate Ryan Appel in June for an in-house counsel role.

The Atlanta Falcons and Tennessee Titans both named new law department leaders within the past year, while the Jacksonville Jaguars recently shook up their in-house legal ranks after a longtime lawyer left to become general counsel for the National Hockey League’s San Jose Sharks.

The new hires are among dozens of in-house lawyers working for the NFL, its 32 teams, and the National Football League Players Association, a labor union representing roughly 1,800 NFL players. Some hold classic legal roles, while others work in business and administrative positions, as well as in football operations.

Appel, hired by the Washington franchise, spent more than a half-dozen years at Davis Wright. He didn’t respond to a request for comment about his new position.

In April, the WFT hired deputy general counsel Mali Friedman, a former legal chief for the XFL, an upstart spring football league sold out of bankruptcy a year ago. Two months later, the team saw the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rebuff its request for three trademarks.

Friedman and Appel report to Damon Jones, a former top lawyer for Major League Baseball’s Washington Nationals who joined the WFT as chief legal officer in December after spending eight months in an of counsel role at Covington & Burling.

Jones and a WFT spokeswoman didn’t respond to requests for comment about the in-house legal additions by the team, which plays its games in Landover, Md.

The WFT is also in the process of finding a new moniker for the organization, which confirmed this week that it’s whittled down its list of new potential nicknames.

The WFT’s past two top in-house legal chiefs, Will Rawson and Eric Schaffer, both left the team last year. Rawson joined Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in January as of counsel in the law firm’s Washington-based litigation group, while Schaffer, his predecessor, departed in early 2020 and subsequently became a senior executive at Athletes First LLC, a sports agency that represents NFL players.

The in-house unrest came amid an NFL inquiry into the WFT’s workplace culture, a probe that ended in July with the league levying a $10 million fine against the team, which has been owned since 1999 by billionaire Daniel Snyder.

Bloomberg Law reported Thursday on unsealed records in a lawsuit filed last year by another former WFT general counsel—retired Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr partner David Donovan—against high-profile litigator Beth Wilkinson over allegedly confidential records related to sexual harassment settlements by the franchise.

Across the Gridiron

The WFT isn’t the only NFL team in the market for legal talent.

Other new recruits and notable appointments include:

San Francisco 49ers – The team, which plays its home games in Santa Clara, Calif., and saw one of its lawyers leave this summer for a job with the National Basketball Association’s Golden State Warriors, welcomed aboard Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati corporate associate Grecia Barboza this month as an associate counsel.

The 49ers announced earlier this year that two other lawyers—Richard Buffum and Richard “R.J.” Gillen IV—would move into key football operations roles as manager of football administration and director of pro scouting, respectively.

Minnesota Vikings – The franchise posted a job listing for an associate counsel amid the departure of Samuel Aintablian II in August to Nike Inc., where he’s now an assistant general counsel for sports marketing. Aintablian spent the past four years with the Vikings, which also saw former associate counsel Demeka Fields leave the team last year for another sneaker industry job. Fields is now counsel for global sports marketing and data privacy at New Balance Inc.

Las Vegas Raiders – Daniel Ventrelle, the team’s longtime general counsel, was tapped in July to replace on an interim basis outgoing Raiders president Marc Badain. The Raiders, who officially relocated last year to Las Vegas after spending the previous two decades playing in Oakland, Calif., have two associate counsel on staff in Zahir Rahman and Sarah Brenner. She and Rahman were hired last year after working as associates at Greenberg Traurig and Covington, respectively.

Miami Dolphins – Brandon Briggs, who spent over six years as an associate counsel for the Dolphins and their home field, Hard Rock Stadium, left the franchise last month to join Major League Soccer’s Inter Miami CF as a deputy general counsel.

Seattle Seahawks – The team hired attorney Drew Johnston in July as a director of government affairs and compliance. Johnston, a former counsel to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), spent the past three years as a senior government affairs manager at Vulcan Inc., a privately held company formed by late Microsoft Corp. billionaire Paul Allen, whose family trust controls the Seahawks.

In May, the Seahawks promoted senior vice president of government affairs and general counsel Edward Goines to chief legal officer and elevated associate counsel Alen Cisija to general counsel. Cisija, a former Covington associate, joined the team in 2018, while Goines was hired in 2014 after working for the Walt Disney Co.

Philadelphia Eagles – Catherine Raîche, a Canadian lawyer, became the highest-ranking female football executive in NFL history in May when the Eagles named her their vice president of football operations. Raîche joined the Eagles in mid-2019 after briefly working for the now-defunct XFL and the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts and Montreal Alouettes. She spoke with USA Today about her transition from corporate tax law to player development and football research.

NFLPA – The labor union representing NFL players, which paid nearly $5.2 million to its outside counsel within the past year, in May hired corporate counsel Chelsey Antony in its headquarters in Washington. Antony was most recently a staff attorney for Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment LLC, a private equity-backed owner of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, NHL’s New Jersey Devils, and other sporting assets.

The NFL’s 2021 opened with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers taking on the Dallas Cowboys at home as the Tom Brady-led Buccaneers began to defend their championship after winning the Super Bowl in February. Tampa won the game, 31-29.

(Updates with the result of the opening game.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Baxter in New York at bbaxter@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com;
John Hughes in Washington at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com

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