Sports Law Blog
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Friday, June 02, 2006
Spelling Bees and Sports Law

For reasons that escape most of us, spelling bees seem to be sporting events. ESPN not only gives them air time, but if you look at and it's "Spotlight" section, you'll see listed, from left to right, "Spelling Bee, MLB, Page 2, Voices, and Tennis." You'll also see details on this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee, won by 13-year-old Katharine Close of New Jersey.

So why then is a spelling bee a sport? One reason may be that, like sports, spelling bees are competitive matches. And maybe that is why chess and poker tournaments also receive airtime on ESPN and other sports channels. But then again, can't the same be said of almost every life activity? Don't companies compete with each other? Don't artists compete with each other? Don't politicians compete with each other? Don't employees compete with each other? Heck, don't we compete with ourselves? Is everything then a sport? And if so, why doesn't ESPN cover those things?

Of course, we all know the real reason why ESPN broadcasts spelling bees: a lot of people watch them, so they are profitable. And think about why we watch them: we get to see the best of the best kid spellers competing with one another, mano-y-mano, and displaying a skill that almost no one else has. And the contestants are actually quite diverse and egalitarian for a "sport": males and females, of different backgrounds, treated as equal opponents. Even better for TV drama, there's that unmistakable nervous tension in the air--these kids have been preparing their entire lives to be on that stage, and, for better or for worse, they really look the part (and when I see that, I am even more grateful to my parents for letting me play sports and videogames as a kid instead of memorizing word spellings, but then again, I never got to be on that stage or ESPN).

So if we accept that a spelling bee is a sport, what then are some possible legal issues? We are, after-all, a sports law blog, and we don't want to ignore a sport. Here's a few:

1) Conflicts of interest with contestants' parents serving as their agents
We know this applies to some: forcing your kid to stay up all night to memorize words like "spheterize" and "drupaceou" and "tonitruous" because you want to be the parent of a spelling bee champion.

2) Age eligibility and spelling bees
What if a 5-year old is the Lebron James of spellers? In the likely absence of collective-bargaining, he may have a case.

3) Collective bargaining between contestants and ESPN over TV revenue
These kids are uniquely smart--if they could somehow band together as a negotiating unit, they might run circles around ESPN's lawyers. However, and at least based on parent interviews, I'd take ESPN's lawyers if the parents are the ones banding together.

4) Emancipated children (e.g., Gary Coleman; Corey Feldman) who become contestants (e.g., neither Gary Coleman nor Corey Feldman but someone else)
Now the world don't move to the beat of just one drum. What might be right for you, may not be right for some.


Can't forget antitrust. WGN wants to televise a Cubs pre-game spelling bee but it can't because ESPN has these kids sign contracts that prohibit them from engaging in another televised spelling bee?

Blogger Rick Karcher -- 6/02/2006 12:18 PM  

Rick, that's a good point. Do I sense a possible law review article here? We now have five real issues that we could co-author into the definitive (and only) piece on spelling bees and sports law.

Blogger Michael McCann -- 6/02/2006 12:24 PM  

o.k. you can cover the age eligibility, collective bargaining and non-statutory labor exemption issues. I'll cover contract, antitrust and agent issues. I'll argue that the term "student-athlete" must be revised in the Uniform Athlete Agents Act to include the agents of spelling bee whiz kids.

Blogger Rick Karcher -- 6/02/2006 12:36 PM  

What about the picketers who want to amend the nation's spelling system? Aside from the fact that they count actress Rebecca Romijn's mother as a member, I haven't seen much about them in the past couple of days. Were they there demonstrating?

What are the legal issues at hand there, both in their demonstration outside a sporting event and in the possiblity of amending the nation's system of spelling?

Blogger Satchmo -- 6/02/2006 1:02 PM  

Oh, I forgot to mention the performance enhancing substance issues. Kids should not have an unfair advantage by eating salmon for lunch before a spelling bee (salmon contains omega 3 oil that's good for brain power).

Blogger Rick Karcher -- 6/02/2006 1:08 PM  

Haha Dr. Karcher, you beat me to that one. The McDonalds diet vs. herbal supplement diet...that could be a huge advantage for a "student athlete" of this genre.

Since ESPN airs this event and it has to be profitable, when will sponsers be introduced. I cannot wait to see who Nike (custom made slacks and button downs) has coming in this year to defend the spelling bee!

Oh where would it stop!

Blogger Chris Lucas -- 6/02/2006 2:37 PM  

On the age basis, I can see how these topics come up, but otherwise, I don't see it any differently from televised poker events, in which many (most) pro players have one or more sponsors, exempted tournaments, et cetera.

Anonymous tim in tampa -- 6/02/2006 4:14 PM  

Just FYI - on the age thing, there is no minimum age. Just a maximum age.

(sighs) Yes I watched the live ESPN coverage this year.

Blogger Brad -- 6/05/2006 1:32 PM  

And let's not forget the fact these kids wear numbers. Can they use them for marketing? Sell them to other kids who might have a "lucky" number?

(A sub-issue of intellectual property could arise, just in case a kid sells his number after having scribbled something on the back of it during a particularly challenging word. A windfall for the number purchaser?)

Blogger ChapelHeel -- 6/06/2006 10:22 AM  

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