John Langel of Ballard Spahr. HANDOUT.
John Langel of Ballard Spahr ()

A pair of Am Law 100 firms are advising separate sides in a dispute over wages between the U.S. women’s national hockey team and USA Hockey Inc.

Ballard Spahr has taken a lead role advising the women’s team, the latest torch bearers in a fight over equitable compensation in sports, as they threatened Wednesday a boycott on their participation in a major tournament later this month after a year of stalled negotiations over increased wages and support from the sport’s U.S. governing body.

“We are asking for a living wage and for USA Hockey to fully support its programs for women and girls and stop treating us like an afterthought,” said a statement by team captain Meghan Duggan. “We have represented our country with dignity and deserve to be treated with fairness and respect.”

The team was expected to report to training camp next week for the March 31 start of the 2017 International Ice Hockey Federation Women’s World Championship, where the U.S. team is poised to defend its title on its home ice in Plymouth, Michigan. But after a stalemate in discussions over compensation, as well as promotional and marketing exposure, the women will not lace up their skates.

“The players are resolute and passionate about changing the culture of USA Hockey for themselves and the next generation,” said labor and employment litigator John Langel, a recently retired Ballard Spahr partner in Philadelphia. Langel is working with Ballard Spahr litigation partner Dee Spagnuolo, no stranger to progressive causes, in representing the team pro bono.

Langel, a well-known sports industry lawyer who retired from Ballard Spahr in July 2016 after 41 years at the firm, previously served as outside general counsel to the U.S. women’s national soccer team from 1998 to 2014. He helped organize and create victory tours for the women’s soccer team following their World Cup victories, renegotiated their contracts with the U.S. Soccer Federation and helped start two professional women’s soccer leagues.

The U.S. women’s soccer team replaced Langel in 2014 with Richard Nichols, a former lawyer at Hughes & Luce and Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, who served as executive director until he was terminated in December. (In February, the women’s national soccer team retained Bredhoff & Kaiser—a labor and employment firm well-versed representing players—and hired former Cooley summer associate Becca Roux to serve as its interim executive director.)

Langel said that he and Ballard Spahr were referred to the women’s hockey team by a member of the U.S. women’s soccer team, which is currently trying to revive collective bargaining negotiations with the USSF after legal proceedings last year that drew in Langel. Frustration over compensation and support from the USSF was a feeling familiar to female hockey players displeased with USA Hockey.

“The situation with the hockey women struck a chord,” Langel said Thursday. “They were in a worse position than the soccer women were in 1998.”

In late 2015, Ballard Spahr and Langel agreed to represent the U.S. women’s hockey team—who have medaled in every Winter Olympics and won the last three world championships—and for the past year the firm has been in negotiations with USA Hockey, a Colorado Springs, Colorado-based nonprofit that oversees the sport in the U.S.

At issue is the compensation and exposure of the women’s hockey team. According to Ballard Spahr, USA Hockey only provided the players with $1,000 per month during the six-month Olympic residency period and “virtually nothing” over the remainder of the four years between Olympic games. Ballard Spahr said that about half of those on the 23-player team hold second or third jobs.

In its negotiations, the women sought a contract with they considered appropriate compensation, promotion and marketing, as well as increased programming for girls’ teams that would be consistent with the financial support that USA Hockey provides to boys’ teams, said Ballard Spahr’s Spagnuolo (pictured right), who plays hockey in her spare time. (USA Hockey spends $3.5 million annually on a schedule of more than 60 games for boys in its national team development program, while there is no comparable development opportunity for girls, according to Ballard Spahr.)

However, after a stalemate at their last meeting in Denver at the end of February, the women made the decision to boycott the upcoming world championships. Spagnuolo said that Faegre Baker Daniels was brought in by USA Hockey at that time.

“We remain hopeful that USA Hockey will come back to the bargaining table with good faith and discuss these issues in a meaningful way so that we can move forward,” Spanguolo said. “We would love to see the players host and defend the world championship.”

USA Hockey general counsel Casey Jorgensen, who has represented the organization in negotiations for most of the past year and became its first-ever in-house lawyer in 2011, did not respond to a request for comment. He earned $213,586 in total compensation from USA Hockey in 2014-15, according to the nonprofit’s most recent federal tax filing.

Faegre Baker Daniels partners James Leonard and Mary Will in Denver, who are now advising USA Hockey in its negotiations with the women’s team, also did not return requests for comment about the dispute. Faegre Baker Daniels has served as outside counsel to USA Hockey since 1988, a relationship that stems from Minneapolis-based predecessor firm Faegre & Benson.

USA Hockey paid $153,510 to Faegre Baker Daniels for legal services in 2013-14 and $205,162 to the firm in 2012-13, according to tax filings by the organization.

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