Reflecting the increasingly litigious reality of sports in general—and collegiate sports, in particular—the Atlantic Coast Conference is creating its first in-house general counsel position, joining the rest of the Power 5 leagues that have already carved out slots on their executive staffs for active members of the bar.
The ACC’s move was prompted by the retirement of Jon Barrett, a North Carolina-based attorney who operated as outside counsel for the conference the last couple years. He fulfilled a similar job as a contracted lawyer for the Big Ten for two decades.
“Although the role has previously been handled differently in the ACC, as part of the modernization of this critical aspect, now is the time to hire a full-time executive staff member to provide comprehensive oversight of legal affairs and risk management for the Conference,” ACC commissioner Jim Phillips told Sportico in a statement.
To fill the newly created role, the conference has retained the Chicago-based executive search firm DHR Global, which helped the Big Ten hire its general counsel, Anil Gollahalli.
The ACC, which is slated to move its headquarters from Greensboro, N.C., to Charlotte in August, says its salary and benefits package will be “competitive and commensurate with experience.”
In recent years, the NCAA has seen its authority diminished by the snowball of state laws requiring schools to allow college athletes to earn money from their NIL, as well as the Supreme Court’s ruling against the association in the antitrust case, NCAA v. Alston.
The loosening grip of college sports’ governing body has forced the power conferences to take on greater responsibilities—and, for that matter, legal bills.
“It is a highly volatile, fluid state of affairs, and if you don’t have the general counsel being the traffic cop and advising executives on what course they should take, there is a vacuum,” said sports attorney Michael Wall, who is of counsel at Foley & Lardner after leading the legal departments of Performance Sports Group and the Boston Bruins.
Two months after the Court’s Alston decision, the ACC sent a letter of inquiry to the Education Department, seeking to confirm that Alston-related benefits provided by schools would not count towards athletes’ financial-aid packages.
As Sportico previously reported, the department provided a surprising response that seemed to suggest grants-in-aid would have to be reduced by any educational-related benefits given to athletes, leading to what sources described as a freak-out among ACC schools. Ultimately, the conference advised its members to use their best judgement; the broad consensus reached since then is that Alston monies can be given on top of those that cover the full cost of attendance.
In its most recent publicly available tax return, from the fiscal year ending in 2021, the ACC reported spending $4.49 million on legal fees, with $1.6 million of that going to the firm—Fox Rothschild—that has represented it as a co-defendant in the House v. NCAA and Oliver v. NCAA antitrust lawsuits.
Typically, an in-house lawyer would not helm a conference’s legal defense but instead serve to coordinate when and which outside counsel was appropriate to hire. In this way and many others, Wall says, having a lawyer on staff can be a significant cost-saver. Though it is currently unknown what the ACC spent on Barrett, the Big Ten paid his consulting company, SPMA Co., $810,800 in 2020 and $2.3 million in 2016.
Barrett, who did not respond to a request for comment, had been a college classmate of former Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany at North Carolina, where Delany played basketball for the Tar Heels and Barrett was the team manager.
He migrated to the ACC after Kevin Warren replaced Delany as Big Ten commissioner in 2020 and made hiring that conference’s first in-house general counsel a top priority. This endeavor, as Sportico reported, stumbled out of the gate, with Warren’s first two hires, Tshneka Tate and Erica McKinley, each lasting less than a year.