For the past two years, I have enjoyed sharing with you my perspectives on many aspects of family law as they relate to high-net-worth individuals. In this advisory, I want to give you a bird’s-eye view into a conversation I had recently with nationally renowned sports law attorney Jay K. Reisinger, partner at Farrell & Reisinger LLC in Pittsburgh, PA. Jay’s practice focuses primarily on sports law, white collar criminal defense, and complex litigation. It turns out that our areas of legal specialty intersect frequently, as divorce and custody issues present thorny challenges when professional athletes are our clients.
Stacy D. Phillips Jay, how are professional athletes different from C-suite executives in the work you do?
Jay K. Reisinger First and foremost, pro athletes (whether in baseball, hockey, basketball, or football) have exceedingly short earning spans. Unlike top executives whose careers can move upward and outward for many lucrative years, the majority of players make significant dollars for just six to eight years. Not surprisingly, the average pro football player’s career lasts no more than two years.
SDP So when a divorce happens during those peak earning years, child and spousal support agreements are negotiated accordingly. When that income stops at the end of the athlete’s career, sometimes prematurely due to injury or other factors, it can wreak havoc for everyone involved.
JKR Exactly. I’m sure you’ve faced that situation many times with your clients. Even more challenging can be the fact that the majority of pro athletes are traded frequently. Some might even play for as many as four teams in one year. That affects custody and visitation arrangements in a big way.
SDP I do see that with my celebrity clients whose projects sometimes require them to be away on location for months at a time. The unpredictability of their schedules, whether they are an actor or an MLB player, means that their children don’t have the structure they need so they can depend on seeing their parent.
JKR As an advisor, I have to recognize that this is sometimes out of their control. For example, their team might make the play-offs, which throws a monkey wrench into their planned time with their child. Are they entitled to “make up time?” What effect does that have on the child’s life?
SDP There’s a lot to consider—the age of the children, their own school schedules and normal routines, the amount of time that each parent spends with the children, where that time is spent—all are factors that impact custody agreements. Although the implications for everyone involved can be complex, we often turn to annual renegotiations depending on the parents’ professional demands. But, let’s be frank about today’s world: even with an intact couple where one or both are high-powered professionals, parents often feel they don’t have enough regular family time.
Unlike top executives whose careers can move upward and outward for many lucrative years, the majority of players make significant dollars for just six to eight years.
JKR That’s right. And what about the wrinkle of international custody? It’s common for me to represent a foreign-born MLB or hockey player with an American ex-spouse or ex-paramour, where my client might want to take their child to, say, the Dominican Republic for the Christmas holidays. Taking minor children of divorce out of the United States isn’t something anyone should take lightly. This isn’t as typical in divorces outside the sports and entertainment world.
SDP Since you mentioned paramours, at this point I have to bring up the fact that, in my experience, pro athletes tend to have more paternity cases brought against them than my average high-net-worth clients. Sometimes, over an athlete’s career, there are multiple cases involving different women and children living in a variety of locations and jurisdictions where the athlete has played and/or owns homes. High-earning athletes make attractive targets for these cases.
JKR Unfortunately, Stacy, that is all too true. And the other sad reality we deal with is domestic violence.
SDP I do a lot of work in that area.
JKR Things are changing pretty quickly. The National Football League and Major League Baseball now have and enforce conduct policies that didn’t exist even four years ago. I’ve seen a significant increase in domestic violence cases in MLB over the past 18 months. Baseball may not be at the forefront of social change, but it does slowly trickle down into professional sports. And I think that baseball will take an even harder stance as these cases develop.
SDP Do you agree that the #MeToo movement has contributed to the rise in the number of these incidents being reported?
JKR I do, and that’s a very good thing. In these situations, I would always advise a woman to call the police. But, the reality is that where professional athletes are concerned, the victim—if she is the wife or mother of the player’s child—has a hard choice to make. If she reports the incident and the player is disciplined, the income could stop. MLB will also most certainly launch an investigation, and suspensions can cost millions of dollars. The bottom line is that owners, leagues, and the players’ unions all need to do better to educate pro athletes about domestic violence. In this 24/7 news cycle, it becomes more important every day to think twice before acting. The repercussions are such that this behavior can be career-ending.