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Using sports to teach law

Students at UVA study the law through sports.
Students at UVA study the law through sports.

If you believe Hollywood, law school is a terrifying experience,

“Mr. Hart, would you recite the facts of Hawkins versus McGee?" Loudly, Mr. Hart. Fill this room with your intelligence!” says actor John Houseman in his memorable role as a Professor at Harvard Law in the Paper Chase.

“I haven’t read the case,” admits the sheepish student.”

“Class assignments for the first day are posted on the bulletin boards in Langdon and Austin Halls. You must have known that,” Houseman bellows.

“No,” says the student.

“You assumed that this first class would be a lecture – an introduction to the course? Never assume anything in my classroom!”

And at UVA Professor Rachel Harmon warns first year law students that it isn’t always exciting.

“We’re going to start droning on about Latin words like mens rea and locus potentiae, and you’re going to think, ‘What am I doing in law school?’”

But her colleague, Richard Re, is taking a different approach to teaching law – helping students to think about rules and their application, to make arguments and explain complex and controversial situations through sports.

“I have a friend at the University of Pennsylvania named Mitch Berman, who is a legal theorist, and he and a professor at the University of Michigan, Richard Friedman, put together a case study book that they entitled The Jurisprudence of Sport," Re explains. "When I got my hands on it I thought, ‘This is a really fresh way to look at a lot of questions that law students and professors spend a lot of time thinking about.’ So I thought, ‘Let’s give it a shot,’ and I used their book and added some of my own materials, and we’ve got a course going now.”

For second year students Sean Onwualu and Derek Hitz it was a no brainer.

“Any time I see a class that says sports on it, I’m definitely adding it to my list," says Onwualu.

“I grew up in Nebraska originally. Nebraska football is everything, so I was sitting in Memorial Stadium since I was 7,” Hitz says.

And it seemed obvious to them that the world of sports and the world of law have much in common.

“Judges are similar to refs in the way that they apply rules, think about rules. They make a lot of discretionary rulings and the same with umpires,” Onwualu explains.

"Helmet to helmet hits for example in football that’s a rule. If you see it, you call it, and that’s easy, versus pass interference. You want to let people play and be a little physical, but how much is too physical? That’s all up to the ref’s discretion. Same thing in law. The speed limit is like 50, but a cop is not going to pull you over for going 55," adds Hitz.

And Professor Re hopes the class will help aspiring lawyers to think creatively about solving disputes.

“Part of the challenge or hope for legal education is to allow students to tap into their creativity in the law, and I think one way to kind of incubate creativity that could be fruitful is to play it out in these other domains where the stakes are a little bit lower, where there’s not an opposing counsel challenging you in front of a judge.”

Each class features students’ talks on different topics, outlining problems and solutions to conflicts on the field or the court or the board.

“We alternate among a wide variety of games and sports. Sometimes we talk about tennis, sometimes we talk about golf. We recently had a presentation on cricket for example, which I’ll just say, I don’t know a lot about cricket, but I’m learning from the students who are familiar with cricket," says Re. "We have presentations on chess that delve into the complexities of chess adjudication in ways that a lot of people wouldn’t know about, so there’s a chance in the class for students to share their expertise in their sport or their game, and to teach the rest of us, including me, how that can shed light on the law.”

And most classes also feature video clips from exciting games, keeping 40 students wide awake for the 13-week course.

Updated: November 30, 2022 at 12:56 PM EST
Editor's Note: The University of Virginia is a financial supporter of Radio IQ.
Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief