While a student at Tulane University Law School, Warren K. Zola founded the Sports Law Society; he graduated in 1992. Since 2002, he has served as the Assistant Dean for Graduate Programs in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College. He also serves as the Chair of the University’s Professional Sports Counseling Panel, where he advises student-athletes pursuing career opportunities in professional athletics. In addition, Zola teaches two graduate courses—Sports Law and The Business of Sports. As an expert in the business of sports, sports law, and the transition from college to professional sports, he has contributed to the Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal, the Harvard Journal of Sports & Entertainment Law, the Huffington Post, the Sports Law Blog, and a chapter in the recently released book Sports for Dorks: College Football.
Zola also serves as a frequent panelist and lecturer on these topics across the nation, recently presenting on the state of NCAA athletics to the House Energy & Commerce Committee and the House Education & Workforce Committee of Congress.
Question and Answer:
What was your favorite class and/or professor at Tulane?
Given my career and interests, I’ll give the obvious answer, Dean Gary Roberts and Sports Law. This was a great class that helped fuel my passion for this field. I am also really glad to see that Professor Gabe Feldman has taken over since Dean Roberts left and enhanced the offerings and reputation of sports law at Tulane Law during his tenure.
What was your favorite thing to do in New Orleans?
Probably either attending Jazz Fest, especially since it signaled the end of the academic year, or working at Tipitina’s and getting to meet a slew of fantastic performers.
What's your fondest law school memory?
This is an easy one: meeting my wife, a member of the Tulane Law class of 1991. Perhaps a distant second place (very distant) would be starting the Sports Law Society and seeing it grow over the two decades since I left.
Why did you choose Tulane?
What are the ways in which Tulane helped prepare you for your career?
Pretty simple--it offered the best Sports Law program in the country and it happened to be in New Orleans—a winning combination in my book. Next question.
Which courses and professors were the most important for you? I’ve already mentioned Dean Gary Roberts—he was clearly the most influential in my career. However, I still remember several others that helped ensure I enjoyed my entire law school experience—Jonathan Turley for Torts, Professor Wessman for Contracts, and also quite notably the charismatic Dean John Kramer.
Describe your career path:
How would you describe a typical work day?
I knew I wanted to carve out some position in “sports law” but really had no idea how to do it or what that specific position would be. Over time, partly by choice and partly by luck, a path began to unfold that took me from law school to working in an athletic department to advising student-athletes to teaching and writing. Each step built upon previous experiences and connections. That said, it’s been a lot of hard work but it’s been made easier by networking and great mentors. Hopefully, the journey isn’t over yet.
Quite frankly it’s a daily balancing act. The majority of my time is spent on my primary responsibility of managing a Business School. Since my life is tied to the academic calendar there is a clear ebb and flow depending upon the time of year. I’m also conscious of the calendar for student-athletes and their specific needs—which vary month to month. For football, December and January can be a crazy time as they are interviewing agents and trying to figure out what their NFL prospects may be. Players in basketball and hockey typically get busy in March/April as their seasons wind down. The rest of the year is spent educating student-athletes and their families about the process in general. I also teach one class each semester which forces me to stay sharp on a variety of topics and while providing me with the opportunity to do something I really enjoy.
What is the best part of your job?
Unequivocally helping a student-athlete transition from college to the pros and then watching them succeed in their chosen sport. Watching him or her confront challenging decisions and able to advise them throughout the process is something from which I take great enjoyment. I guess the single greatest part is having the student-athletes come back as alumni and share their stories and lives after school.
What is the worst part of your job?
Unfortunately, not every student-athlete who wants a pro career makes it. Thus, working with a student-athlete who hopes to have a career in professional athletics but, ultimately, have them realize that they are not going to make it as a professional athlete can be painful. The goal is to ensure that they have other opportunities—and having a college degree is a big part of that.
If you could give one piece of career advice to current students, what would it be?
Know that if you really want a career in a particular field, keep working at it and you’ll get there. It often becomes a question of “how bad do you want it?” Are you willing to work for free? Are you willing to hold down several jobs? Are you willing to network and travel if necessary? Bottom line, you’ll make it if you want it, but only you know if the sacrifices you make are worth it.
What do you think is the biggest issue in sports law/business today?
I think the debate surrounding the NCAA and college athletics is going to lead to major change in the next several years. From conference realignment to the interest in unionization for student-athletes to paying student-athletes the debate has gone from outspoken academics to the mainstream media over the past several months. Also, the ramifications of the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit could radically change the NCAA and college sports as well.
What do you think will be the biggest issue in sports law/business in 5 years?
Too many to select from: media rights as leagues and conferences sell their content directly to consumers, NCAA reform, PEDs, league expansion, and the next round of CBA discussions.
Why is it so important for student-athletes making the transition to the pro’s to have unbiased guidance?
Because the decisions that they face are life altering. Do I leave college early? Who do I select to help manage my professional career? How do I ensure that I can maximize my talents and potential to earn money while preparing for, on average, a very short career? Obviously there is also tension between what’s right for a particular student-athlete and a University, so I feel it’s imperative that the student-athlete and their family have someone with some experience and insight on their side. That’s what colleges should be doing—helping all of their students chase their dreams and provide career advice/guidance.
What is the most important thing for a transitioning student-athlete to know about making the jump to professional sports?
Educate yourself thoroughly. Get advice from someone who has your best interests at heart and can help you navigate the process. There are lots of people who want to ride your coattails or take advantage of you, and the more educated you become about the process, the better off you will be in the long run.
Dean Zola’s Publications Include:
Harvard Journal of Sports & Entertainment Law March 2012
“Transitioning to the NBA: Advocating on Behalf
of Student-Athletes for NCAA Rule Changes.” Link
Sports for Dorks: College Football 2011 September 2011
Wrote a chapter for this book, edited by Mike Leach, which aims to address the information needs of college football fans who seek a deeper understanding about the game and its intricacies. The chapter contributed is titled “Understanding the College-to-NFL Transition: The (Cautionary) Tale of Mike Williams”.
Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal February 2011
"Going Pro in Sports: Improving Guidance for Student-Athletes
in a Complicated Legal and Regulatory Framework."
Co-written by Glenn Wong and Chris Deubert. Link
Huffington Post (www.huffingtonpost.com/warren-k-zola) 2011 – Present
Frequent contributing writer to this blog, most recent articles include: “Supporting Student-Athletes in Their Transition to the Pros: A Financial Argument,” “UConn: NCAA Rules (Still) Don’t Apply to Us,” “The Unlucky Draft Class of 2011,” “Transitioning from the NCAA to the NBA: Time for a Change in the Rules” and “I’m Begging You for Mercy.”
Sports Law Blog (sports-law.blogspot.com/) 2010 – Present
Featured and regular contributing writer to this blog which has been recognized as one of three best Sports Business blogs in the country and by the American Bar Association Journal as a Top 100 Law Blog.