News & Politics

Covington Continues Scoring Big NFL Bucks

The closest Gregg Levy ever came to a football field was when he sold popcorn and Cracker Jack at Ohio State games in his native Columbus. But now the head of litigation at Covington & Burling could be the National Football League’s Most Valuable Player.

Levy made the winning argument in a landmark case that cemented the teams’ right to negotiate as one entity with apparel makers, fighting off a charge that the policy violated federal antitrust laws. Challengers wanted the right to try selling apparel to individual teams; the league and clubs had an exclusive deal with Reebok to manufacture all hats and jerseys.

It was the latest in a string of victories for the NFL since Levy took over the bulk of its legal work in 1993. In 1996, in the Supreme Court, he bested Kenneth Starr in an antitrust challenge to the league’s method of paying players on practice squads. In 2007, Levy won reversal of a $1.2-billion judgment against the league for allegedly interfering with the Oakland Raiders’ attempt to build a stadium in Los Angeles. That pays a lot better than selling popcorn and hot dogs.

Washington’s most venerable downtown law firm is buzzing these days, mostly because of its near-50-year representation of the world’s most successful sports league. There was a time when Covington’s leading partner was former secretary of State Dean Acheson, and the firm’s involvement in international affairs made it what one author called “an arm of the US Department of State.”

NFL work, which runs the gamut from dealing with the players’ union and television networks to negotiating licensing agreements, keeps up to 50 lawyers hopping. It leaves Levy almost too busy to attend games. He doesn’t even own Redskins season tickets, though getting tickets usually is no problem.

The general counsel of the NFL, Jeff Pash, and the top lawyer at the National Basketball Association, Rick Buchanan, are both formerly of Covington & Burling. After 17 years as NFL commissioner, Paul Tagliabue returned to the firm, where he meets with C&B clients, dispenses advice, and does not fill out time sheets—every lawyer’s dream arrangement.

Covington’s Gerhard Gesell was first hired by the NFL in 1960 to fight off antitrust issues generated by creation of the American Football League. When Gesell went to the federal bench, where he played a key role in the “Nixon tapes” case, the NFL work migrated to Hamilton Carothers, then eventually to Tagliabue. It was the luck of the draw for Levy that shortly after arriving at Covington from Harvard Law School in 1977, he was assigned to Tagliabue’s litigation team.

At a time when many law firms are cutting back lawyers and staff, Covington is going great guns. As the NFL goes, so goes Covington & Burling.

This article first appeared in the October 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here

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