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In-house counsel Ronald J. Kurpiers, Arena Football League Title: Deputy commissioner and general counsel Age: 39 The company: Founded in 1986, arena football is the only patented sport in the world. A form of American football, the game is played indoors on a 50-yard field with two 50-foot nets suspended from the ceilings. Fans are uncommonly close to the action, separated only by sidewalls, as in a hockey rink. Based in Chicago, the Arena Football League is the umbrella organization that regulates this fast-paced game. Legal department: As the Arena Football League’s first general counsel, Ronald J. Kurpiers not only had to create a legal department but, for much of his tenure, has also had to be the legal department. He is a hands-on manager, logging some 140,000 air miles each year doing everything from crisis management in his role as deputy commissioner to trying cases in his capacity as general counsel. “One great thing about my job, the diversity of the legal issues really is kind of off the charts,” Kurpiers says. “That’s what makes the job really exciting. When you are the general counsel, every crisis of the corporation ends up on your desk.” Disputes can involve anything from player issues and team operations to problems with officials. And unlike the players, whose season is from April to August, “there is no off season” for the legal department. “This is an atypical job. You can work 24 hours a day, seven days a week sometimes. We’re always busy.” The legal department consists of Kurpiers, an assistant and a staff attorney. Kurpiers says he hopes to add two more lawyers, three more support staff and some accounting personnel in the fall. He says he will need the extra accounting help because the league recently entered into a long-term collective bargaining agreement with the players. Route to the top: A native of Illinois, Kurpiers earned his undergraduate degree in 1983 from Marquette University and a law degree in 1987 from Valparaiso University School of Law. Shortly before earning his J.D., he toyed with the idea of joining the FBI but chose instead to pursue what he always wanted to do — be a trial attorney. He spent 18 months as an assistant state’s attorney in Lake County, Ill., before crossing the border in 1989 to become an assistant U.S. attorney in the Northern District of Indiana. As a prosecutor, he says, he lost only three trials out of an estimated 30, handling cases from white-collar crime and RICO to public corruption, complex investment fraud and money laundering. He even successfully prosecuted the nation’s first murder-for-hire case under the then-new federal statute. In what turned out to be a high-profile case, Kurpiers helped convict Arizona businessman Robert M. Levine for hiring a hit man to kill his brother and sister-in-law across the country in Hammond, Ind. The offer: It was in the courtroom that Kurpiers inadvertently auditioned for the general counsel post. He had been handling a large-scale drug prosecution involving motorcycle gangs in 1994 when, after court one day, a man he had never met before asked him if he “would ever be interested in doing an honest job.” The man was Jerry Kurz, one of the Arena Football League’s founders. The league was looking for someone comfortable and experienced with the federal court system who also was an experienced trial attorney. Kurpiers laughed at the suggestion. But the once-in-a-lifetime offer became more and more attractive. “I was flattered, and the next thing you know, I couldn’t pass it up,” recalls Kurpiers, who began working at the Arena Football League in January 1995. His colleagues were stunned and a bit envious of this dream job as a lawyer in professional sports. “It’s not easy to become involved or break into professional sports, so it was a great opportunity for me,” he says. From black and white to gray: One of the toughest adjustments from prosecutor to corporate lawyer has been learning to look beyond his black-and-white view of the world. “In business, the right thing is somewhat clouded,” Kurpiers says. “The prudent decision from a business standpoint many times tends to cloud what the right thing is to do. I struggle with that a lot.” Litigation: Since stepping into his post, Kurpiers has traveled to California, Delaware and Florida to try cases involving contracts, workers’ compensation and antitrust matters. The league has two cases pending, still at the early discovery phase, in federal courts in Orlando, Fla., and New Jersey. The Orlando case, Charlotte Rage v. Arena Football League, is a contractual/antitrust matter between the league and a former owner whose team played in the league from 1992 to 1996. In New Jersey, in James Guidry v. Arena Football League, Kurpiers is defending the league against a suit in which players are alleging various anti-trust violations from 1996 to 1999, when the league didn’t have a union. According to the players, the owners conspired to restrain player salaries and player movement within the league. That case has added a new dimension to Kurpiers’ job — complex labor issues — because the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the National Football League Players Association have filed a complaint about the Arena Football League with the National Labor Relations Board. It involves an unusual set of circumstances, too. “They thought they could come in and organize our players and support the filing of a lawsuit against the league for antitrust and then sit and bargain the terms and conditions of employment for collective bargaining,” Kurpiers says. “Instead, the players formed their own union.” Outside counsel: Although Kurpiers is “always the lead trial counsel,” he uses local counsel so he can be admitted to specific courts. But for antitrust matters, he relies heavily on New York’s Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. For corporate and tax matters, he uses another New York firm, Proskauer Rose. A true fan: Although arena football was still a fairly young sport, Kurpiers already was a fan by the time he took over as general counsel. He had been intrigued by the story of the game’s founding and the fact that Chicago was its birthplace, and he regularly watched the games late at night on ESPN. Kurpiers says he admires the athleticism and character of many of the players, and when he first started with the league, he would frequently be the first one to start shaking hands on the field at the end of the game. The sad part is that now he’s so busy that when he does get to go to games, he doesn’t get to see much of the action. “When I go to a game and I have to interact or host an expansion candidate or a sponsor, I’m disappointed because I don’t get to watch the game.” Family: Kurpiers is married to Cindy, a real estate sales agent. They reside in Chicago. Last book read: “The Keys to the Kingdom: How Michael Eisner Lost His Grip,” by Kim Masters.

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