The Journal on Sports and Entertainment Law recently sat down with attorney Peter Ginsberg, counsel to Ray Rice, to discuss current issues in sports law. As managing partner of Peter R. Ginsberg Law, LLC, Mr. Ginsberg has represented clients in a wide range of white collar criminal and securities matters as well as sophisticated commercial matters. With regard to his prominent sports practice, Mr. Ginsberg has represented numerous players and coaches in NFL League matters and litigation, NCAA matters, and professional golf, baseball and hockey internal and litigation disputes.
The interview was conducted by Loren Shokes, a Sports Highlight Contributor for the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law and a current second year student at Harvard Law School (Class of 2017).
Journal on Sports and Entertainment Law (JSEL): Do you think the NFL, as well as Commissioner Goodell, properly handled the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson incidents and what, if anything, should they have done differently?
Peter Ginsberg (PG): I think the League handled the Ray Rice incident, in particular, as badly as someone with the Commissioner’s experience could have handled it. The Commissioner succumbed to media and public pressure, in a way that compromised basic and fundamental rights of any individual. He handed down a penalty and then tried to re-penalize Mr. Rice for exactly the same behavior. To me, the most striking aspect of it was up until the time the public expressed outrage of what Mr. Rice did, the Commissioner showed very little interest or concern about having a viable policy dealing with these matters. If anything, I think the Ray Rice situation showed everyone how little the NFL cared about domestic violence up until that point and then only changed the policy because of the media circus that was involved. There’s no excuse for what Mr. Rice did. Likewise, there’s no excuse for how willing the Commissioner was to compromise fundamental, basic procedural rights to which Mr. Rice was entitled.
JSEL: Do you think other Leagues and other Commissioners would have handled the situation like Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson differently, or is there something inherently unique about the NFL?
PG: I think the NFL has managed to take control of multiple roles in disciplinary proceedings. The media keeps using the term that Commissioner Goodell is the judge, jury, and executioner. That’s a good description. There’s no way that the Commissioner should evaluate, investigate, judge, and then handle his own appeals. I think the only fair thing to do is have a neutral person who can hear both sides fairly. I think the NFL is unique in its unwillingness up to this point to share basic and fundamental parts of the process and to find a truly neutral person who doesn’t succumb to the media the way the Commissioner does and doesn’t fall within the power of the owners in the way the Commissioner does. There has to be a fair way to do this.
JSEL: Do you think the NFL Commissioner should have been disciplined or even fired for his handling of the Ray Rice situation?
PG: I think the Commissioner should be roundly criticized for his lack of fairness and his lack of judgment. It’s not up to me to tell the owners whether they should or should not fire Commissioner Goodell for the way he handled it.
JSEL: If TMZ never released the video, do you think Ray Rice would have faced any additional disciplinary actions, or would the status quo have been maintained?
PG: There’s no doubt the status quo would have been maintained. Mr. Rice was originally punished under the then existing policy. And with or without the TMZ video, that should have been the end of it.
JSEL: You have a long history of representing players in disputes with the league, what if anything was different or challenging about representing Mr. Rice, given the widespread media coverage and public outcry over the now notorious video
PG: On a personal level, I’ve always wanted to be involved in cases that I could go home and talk about and have my family proud of what I was doing. The underlying act of Mr. Rice was an abomination; it was horrible. It took me a while to make the decision to represent Mr. Rice because of that. But as I got to know Ray and understand the situation, I became increasingly convinced of two or three things. First of all, Mr. Rice never made an excuse for his actions. He owned up to it, he took responsibility for it, he is as ashamed of what he did as anybody could be. I truly believe that. Second, I got to know Ray’s wife and that gave me a level of comfort about being involved. Third is the fundamental principle that people ought to be treated fairly and that the Commissioner had no right to sacrifice Ray, his career, and his rights, as a result of media coverage; that is something I felt very strongly about.
JSEL: In the wake of the Ray Rice incident, the league issued a new policy on domestic violence. How effective do you think the new policy is and what changes would you suggest to amend the policy?
PG: I think domestic violence should be treated harshly so I am fully in favor of having the standard punishment be more severe than what Commissioner Goodell in the past has done. I don’t think this policy or any policy will ever work or be legitimate if the Commissioner holds onto the power to make the decisions. If the Commissioner is forced to accept a neutral adjudication, I think it would be good for the NFL, the labor force, and society as a whole to know that this very important matter is being handled fairly and without the influence of owners, media, or anybody else other than people who truly care about the process.
JSEL: Can you please tell me more about your career path and how you’ve been able to represent NFL players?
PG: Sure. After graduating from Columbia Law and clerking for a year, I went to a big firm in New York where I spent a couple years and then became a federal prosecutor. I served at the US Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York for about seven years and then became a partner at a mid-size firm in Manhattan. One of my first clients was a superstar from the Dallas Cowboys. Just coincidentally, one of the matters in which I represented him related to the then very new drug policy. It was written jointly by the NFL and the NFLPA in a manner that could not possibly have been fairly administered and I had a hearing in which we challenged the entire policy. Commissioner Tagliabue adjudicated that hearing. Both the NFL and NFLPA opposed us in our challenging the policy. The Commissioner ruled in our favor and directed that the policy be re-written and hired me to help in that process. So from then, for a period of a couple years, I represented the NFL with matters such as writing the policy and conducting internal investigations and I also was representing players. As a result, I got to know the business a little bit. After that point, I have been in and out of big firms and I currently have my own firm. But my practice is not predominately sports. I do a lot of white collar criminal defense work and commercial and securities litigation. I’ve been very fortunate in the sports world to be allowed to handle cases that have a significance to the sports law jurisprudence and those are the kinds of cases I’m interested in doing. I’ve been lucky enough to do those types of cases which impact upon employee rights generally, whether it’s football or NCAA enforcement, or relating to other sports such as basketball and golf.
JSEL: What advice would you give to people who do want to enter the sports and entertainment world, such as yourself?
PG: If the goal is to represent players, my advice is to become the best all around attorney you can, from being comfortable in a court room to being comfortable with litigation generally. I think the best service that can be provided to an athlete is the same as the service to be provided to anyone else and that’s to be as well-rounded and as thorough as possible. After you get to the point where you feel comfortable, whether it’s through private practice or a prosecutor’s office, or wherever else, at that point, it’s important to make contacts and that is obviously a difficult thing to do. But as I said, become the best lawyer you can and then start focusing on how to get involved in more sports related matters.