Garth Glissman, the National Basketball Association (NBA) Associate Vice President of Basketball Operations, visited the College of Law on February 19, 2019. Mr. Glissman spoke about the operations and governance of the NBA and their relationship with the law. The event was co-hosted by the Intellectual Property Law Society and the Sport and Recreation Management program.


Organizational structure of the NBA

            Glissman began by explaining the business structure of the NBA. It is a privately held corporation with 30 owners, one for each NBA team. The NBA actually owns four leagues: the NBA, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), the G-League, and NBA2K. The WNBA is the women’s counterpart to the NBA. The G-League is a developmental league that prepares players for the NBA. G-League teams include the Iowa Wolves, associated with the Minnesota Timberwolves NBA franchise. NBA2K is an esports professional competitive gaming league.

            The NBA is managed at the league level by the league office. The league office and franchises can be analogized to the federal government (league office) and the states (franchises). The league office plays two main roles: league governance and centralized business and marketing functions. Glissman works on the league governance side, which manages the on-court and off-court rules for the league.

            The league office also serves functions similar to the executive branch of the United States federal government. For example, it speaks as one voice for the NBA, similar to the foreign policy function of the executive branch. The NBA league office manages the television rights for the league, while the individual teams handle ticket sales and their own television deals with regional networks. The league office also manages international outreach for the league, including the newly announced African Basketball League that will include teams from across Africa.

League governance and its similarities to law

            Many aspects of modern professional sports leagues stem from the actions of the first sports commissioner, the colorful Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Landis was a well-known federal judge in Illinois and served as the first commissioner of baseball from 1920–1924. He was chosen to clean up the sport after the infamous Black Sox Scandal in which members of the Chicago White Sox conspired with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series. He banned eight of those players from baseball for life. (In a tie to Iowa, those players fictionally returned to play on a field in Dyersville, Iowa in the movie Field of Dreams.) The strong punishment by Landis fit his personality.

            Landis negotiated a favorable deal with the team owners for his contract. He was to remain as a federal judge full-time. The owners could not fire him or reduce his salary. He possessed essentially unlimited authority on league rules. There was a prohibition on public criticism of him by the owners. Finally, the owners waived any right to challenge his decisions in court. These types of agreements are now standard for league commissioners, and Landis’s deal still shapes how leagues operate today.

            A major function of the league office is to manage the on-court rules for the NBA, which are found in its Rule Book. Glissman was the chief drafter of the 2018-2019 Rule Book. These on-court rules are similar to the model rules for various areas of law, and Glissman explained that “[o]ur rulemaking process is very similar to the legislative rulemaking process.” The Rule Book includes the rules, which are worded and structured much like legislative rules. The Rule Book also includes comments on the rules, which explain things like interpretations of the rules and how the rules are to be enforced. The on-court regulation of the game can also be modified by changing areas of emphasis, which contain rules for the referees to focus on and interpretations of the rules.

            The NBA also has sources of authority, just as is seen in law. The ultimate source of authority is the NBA Constitution and By-Laws. There is a Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and the NBA Players’ Association, which is the players’ union. The Operations Manual contains the off-court rules, and the Rule Book, as stated, contains the on-court rules. The Case Book is an official supplement to the on-court rules, and it contains many hypothetical in-game playing situations and how they are to be called by the referees (just like the problems in a law school case book). Finally, the league office issues memos that contain interpretive changes to the on- and off-court rules, for example to decrease grabbing and holding to facilitate a more free-flowing game.

Glissman’s responsibilities

            Glissman has many areas of responsibility, beginning with assisting various groups within the NBA with their rulemaking and governance duties. He works with the Board of Governors, in a position he analogized to a senior staffer on the Senate Judiciary Committee. For that, he analyzes issues so that the decisionmakers have the needed information. He assists owners on the Competition Committee that proposes new rules and guidelines. Finally, he helps with the Head Coach and General Manager Meetings. Those meetings are held to discuss myriad issues, but they do not have rulemaking authority.

            Glissman also deals with discipline related to on-court incidents. This involves investigations conducted by the NBA. Glissman manages the investigations and then writes a report that resembles a judicial opinion.

            Finally, Glissman works on broader policy matters. He presented the Undergraduate Advisory Committee as an example. The Committee provides college basketball players with objective evaluations of where they might be drafted in the NBA Draft. The players can then use that information when deciding to stay in college or make the jump to the NBA.

Career advice

            Glissman began his career as a lawyer, but also maintained a strong connection to the game of basketball. He coached a high school basketball team in Nebraska, did sports-related radio announcing, and wrote articles on sports topics. Glissman advised law students interested in a sports-related career to “Get involved now!” He explained that his basketball-related work made his passion for the game evident to employers. He suggested those interested in a similar career “coach,” “take advantage of publicly available information,” and “produce tangible work product or research.” In addition to getting involved with sports promptly, Glissman also encouraged students to “develop and strengthen marketable skills.”

            Finally, Glissman emphasized the need to “outwork and out-sacrifice” the competition. Sports-related work is a competitive, though rewarding, industry. The industry draws many to it, and students should work to distinguish themselves and show their desire.

The information in this article was adapted from Mr. Glissman’s talk.