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How Mediation Can Help Resolve Pro Sports Disputes

How Mediation Can Help Resolve Pro Sports Disputes

Worldwide, mediation has become a common means of resolving conflict, ranging from divorce to workplace disputes to broken contracts. Yet mediation remains an underused tool for resolving disputes in U.S. professional sports leagues, writes Adelphi University professor Mark Grabowski in his recent article “Both Sides Win: Why Using Mediation Would Improve Pro Sports” in the Journal of Sports & Entertainment Law.

This is true despite the fact that when parties in sports-related disputes do try mediation, they often see dramatic results. As Grabowski explains, mediation has helped pro sports in the past and could greatly improve efficiency if applied more widely.

How meditations helped the NHL

Consider the National Hockey League’s (NHL) 2012 dispute with the NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) over the terms of their next collective-bargaining agreement. With the two parties at an impasse and about $200 million apart on the issue of player revenue-sharing, the league locked out the players. Weeks turned into months of canceled games, and the specter of another canceled season loomed. (The NHL had canceled its entire 2004-2005 season due to a similar dispute.)

A breakthrough came when federal mediator Scot L. Beckenbaugh entered the picture, according to USA Today. When face-to-face negotiations got heated, Beckenbaugh separated the two sides and engaged in shuttle diplomacy for about 12 hours, visiting each side in turn to identify issues where they might be flexible. Sixteen additional hours of negotiation led to a win-win deal that hinged on the issue of player pensions. The agreement allowed NHL players, whose careers are often short, to concede on the short-term issue of salary in return for peace of mind regarding their long-term financial future.

Mediator Beckenbaugh widely received “hero’s praise” from NHL players, management, fans, and the sports media for finding a way to bring the parties together in a way that met each side’s interests, according to the website SB Nation.

How the NFL benefited from mediation

The NHL isn’t the only pro sports league that has benefited from mediation in the recent past. In 2011, court-sponsored mediation helped the National Football League take key steps toward resolving its labor dispute and player lockout through negotiation.

Mediator Arthur Boylan began by bringing NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the head of the NFL Players Association, DeMaurice Smith, together for lunch and asking them to talk “about their families and background—everything but football,” according to Grabowski. By helping the parties find common ground, Boylan enabled them to build the trust they needed to ultimately resolve their dispute through negotiation.

Capitalizing on how the mediation process works

Grabowski argues that the types of conflict that often crop up in professional sports, including labor, disciplinary, and broadcast disputes, are ripe for resolution with mediation.

That’s in part because of what happens in mediation: an impartial third party—a trained mediator—works to try to help disputants find common ground and end their impasse. In the type of voluntary mediation that’s common in the business world, the two sides choose their mediator jointly, they have ultimate responsibility for reaching a mutually beneficial agreement, and they may walk away from the process at any time.

Read the complete article here.

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