What Lawyers Can Learn from College Athletes 

lawyer civility

Players kneeling on the sideline when an athlete from the opposing team is injured on the field. A player extending her hand to help a rival off the floor following an unintentional collision. Post-game handshakes after a hotly contested game.

As an avid college sports fan, I am often struck by the extent to which these gestures of sportsmanship and civility are exhibited, even as athletes compete fiercely for their respective teams. Rather than being viewed as signs of weakness or concession, these displays of civility and respect for opponents are what is expected of elite competitors and team leaders. Indeed, they are viewed as integral to demonstrating respect for the game itself.

Lawyers can learn a lot about civility and sportsmanship from these student-athletes. Like athletes, attorneys often practice in inherently adversarial arenas. However, instead of resorting to uncivil tactics to overpower the opposition, lawyers should draw inspiration from the way sportsmanship is increasingly being elevated in college sports, even amid intense rivalry and competition.

A successful friendly rivalry  

One of the most celebrated rivalries in college football is the Army-Navy Game between the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the U.S. Naval Academy. Since 1890, Army and Navy have played in this game, which West Point describes on its website as a “friendly–yet intense–inter-service rivalry” that “has come to embody a celebration of service, a tradition of excellence, and a tradition of winning – both on and off the field.”

In a game that commences with impressive military flyovers and has been attended by sitting U.S. presidents, the Navy Midshipmen and Army Black Knights each seek to emerge victorious. However, as emphasized on West Point’s website, “After the final play is run and the final whistle is blown, both teams clasp hands and become part of a bigger team – America’s Team – and a greater brotherhood – standing shoulder to shoulder with each other in harm’s way and ready to stand in the gap to defend this great Nation.”

Indeed, at the game’s conclusion, both teams join to sing each other’s alma mater, with the losing team’s anthem being sung first “in a sign of good sportsmanship.”

Civility and sportsmanship for lawyers

This focus on upholding values that transcend any particular outcome reflects the type of ethos extolled in the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct. In the Rules’ Preamble, the Illinois Supreme Court emphasizes a lawyer’s tripartite roles as “a representative of clients,” “an officer of the legal system,” and “a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.”

As such, even if certain tactics would advance a client’s interests in a particular case (e.g., refusing to agree to reasonable requests for extensions, misrepresenting facts, or negotiating in bad faith), a lawyer is precluded from deploying them if doing so would undermine the legal system or its quality of justice.

In the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism’s 2021 Survey on Professionalism, 90% of Illinois attorneys surveyed said lawyers who lack civility undermine the public’s confidence in the judicial system. Accordingly, lawyers who feel compelled to cross the line from zealous advocacy to intemperate incivility—whether through sarcastic comments during oral argument, inflammatory language in briefs, or demeaning comments during depositions—must recognize that they are not only disrespecting opposing counsel but also the profession itself.

Like the Naval Academy midshipmen and U.S. Military Academy cadets, lawyers must aspire to engage as intense rivals while maintaining fidelity to transcendent principles of civility and respect.

Prioritizing student-athletes’ mental health

Olympic champion Simone Biles made international headlines at the 2020 Summer Olympics when she withdrew from the team final and individual all-around competitions, citing the need to put her mental health first and emphasizing in an NBC Sports interview that prioritizing mental health is “more important than any other medal you could win.”

Biles is among the ranks of other elite athletes—including tennis player Naomi Osaka and swimmer Michael Phelps—who now publicly champion the importance of athletes’ mental health and work to destigmatize seeking support.

With this growing recognition of athletes’ need to protect not only their physical health but also their mental health, greater emphasis is also being placed on decreasing the incivility and harassment to which student-athletes are subjected.

Last year, the University of Illinois Division of Intercollegiate Athletics launched the “I Matter” social media campaign, which its website says is designed to “support[] our Fighting Illini Student-Athletes and Coaches from social harassment and promote[] social media responsibility.”

In a press release announcing the initiative, the university’s Director of Athletics Josh Whitman said that “we have seen a dramatic uptick in the mental health needs of our student-athletes in recent years, due in large part to an increase in pointed, personal social media attacks.”

Noting that “research demonstrates that 40% of athletes between the ages of 18-21 experience negative social media harassment,” the “I Matter” program encourages people to report social media harassment to a designated “I Matter” social media account or the applicable social media platform administrator, use the #IMatter hashtag to support the program’s aims, and participate in social media civility education released by the university’s Division of Intercollegiate Athletics.

According to the press release, the campaign is targeted against social media content “that may be upsetting or appears to be harassing Fighting Illini student-athletes or those from other schools.”

One of the U of I football games I attended last year featured an “I Matter” PSA on the scoreboard during the game, which served as a clarion call for upholding student-athletes’ humanity, dignity, and mental health. As a proud University of Illinois graduate, I could not have been prouder of my alma mater’s efforts to protect its student-athletes and combat incivility on social media.

Lawyer incivility and mental health

The connection between incivility and mental health is one the legal profession must take to heart too. Ninety-two percent of the attorneys surveyed in the Commission’s Survey on Professionalism agreed that lawyers who lack civility make the practice of law less satisfying, and 62% said incivility discourages diversity in the legal profession.

Moreover, while studies on bullying in the legal profession have been limited in the U.S., a 2018 report on bullying and sexual harassment from the International Bar Association (IBA) noted that “for the target, bullying can have severe health implications and is associated with increased psychological stress, depression, anxiety and burnout.” The IBA report indicated that “lawyers who are bullied or harassed are unlikely to perform at their best” and may “leave their workplaces and, in some cases, the profession altogether.”

As an aside, due to the lack of data on when and why bullying is happening in the legal profession, the Commission on Professionalism is currently surveying active Illinois lawyers  on their experiences with bullying. The data will be used to provide recommendations for reducing bullying in a variety of legal settings and guidance to individuals, employers, and judges for preventing and combatting bullying.

In the same way that the University of Illinois’ “I Matter” campaign encourages fans to become allies of student-athletes by reporting incivility and harassment they see online, lawyers must also be allies when they observe people—including other attorneys and legal professionals—being targeted by uncivil, harassing, or bullying behavior.

Whether it be through standing up for targets of incivility or reporting harassment to a supervisor, judge, or the ARDC, we must ensure that targets of this behavior know that #TheyMatter.

The power of sport

Laureus is a global sporting movement founded to “change the world through the power of sport” and “use this power to end violence, discrimination and disadvantage against young people and children.”

At the inaugural Laureus World Sports Awards in 2000, Nelson Mandela famously said, “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. … Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers.”

Mandela then recognized the inductees of the Laureus World Sports Academy Hall of Fame, noting that “they are valiant not only in the playing field, but also in the community,” and emphasizing that “their legacy will be an international community where the rules of the game are the same for everyone, and behavior is guided by fair play and good sportsmanship.”

If the legal profession could be known for valiance not only in the courtroom, but also in the community, rules that are the same for everyone, and behavior that is guided by fair play and good sportsmanship, perhaps lawyers too could break barriers, create hope where once there was only despair, and deliver justice that changes the world.

By diligently protecting clients’ legal rights and interests, rendering critical pro bono assistance to those who would otherwise be incapable of affording representation, reporting other lawyers who betray clients’ trust through fraud or deceit, serving on philanthropic and service boards in local communities, and treating colleagues, clients, and opponents alike with respect, lawyers can, as the Supreme Court exhorted in the Rules’ Preamble, “play a vital role in the preservation of society.”

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One thought on “What Lawyers Can Learn from College Athletes 

  1. Erika, I enjoyed reading your blogs, and also watching the video! Your are truly a brilliant mind! Your example of the Army Navy game is well written as always! Keep up the good work in Christ!

    Regards, Michael

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