Matt Mitten: From sports fan to sports lawyer (board member profile)

September 10, 2020
Matt Mitten

By Darby Clark

An experienced lawyer and sports law professor, Sports and Society Initiative advisory board member Matt Mitten knows as well as anyone the enormous power of sports.

“I have always been convinced that sports might be the only thing that keeps us all from killing each other,” Mitten said.

Thus, when he learned about SSI at an Ohio State alumni event in his home city of Chicago, he knew it was the perfect fit.

“As we were talking about it, I was like, ‘You know, Ohio State’s always been a leader on the college athletics field—it ought to be a leader on the academic research side,’” Mitten said.

Mitten participated in some of SSI’s early panels and programs and has been on the advisory board for the past several years.

A native of Ohio, Mitten initially attended the University of Toledo for his first year of college. The university offered a course on sports law, which Mitten could have taken during his final quarter at the school, but didn’t.

“I remember friends took it, and they were like, ‘Why aren’t you taking this?’ and I said, ‘Well I’ll never use it,’” Mitten said.

Mitten transferred to Ohio State after his freshman year, citing sports as the foundation of his desire to become a Buckeye.

“If I were honest, I would say because of being an Ohio State football fan, that led to an interest in going to school there,” Mitten said.

It was at Ohio State that Mitten said he felt like he had finally found his place. He began to realize his interest in various aspects of law due to his heavy load of economics classes and his habit of asking his professors about their academic paths

That habit continued into Mitten’s return to University of Toledo for law school, where a conversation with one of his professors about an interest in antitrust law helped to prepare him for the road ahead.

“He said, ‘That means big firm, big practice, you better be top five of your class, because they look at grades a lot,’” Mitten said. “And I said, ‘Well I’m also thinking about being a law professor,’ and he almost starts choking and he says, ‘You better be first in your class.’”

Mitten took the advice to heart. He graduated magna cum laude from law school at Toledo, then moved to Atlanta to work as a summer associate, and eventually as a full-time lawyer, at a nationally prominent firm in Atlanta. Some of his work involved sports industry, such as registering some of the trademarks and copyrights for the Rose Bowl, though he had not made that realm is primary focus.

Unbeknownst to Mitten, his decision to begin teaching law in 1991 would mark the beginning of a new direction in his career: his foray into sports law.     

“When I started teaching down in Houston, the dean said, ‘What do you know about sports law?’ I said, ‘Well…I don’t know if I would call myself a pro sports lawyer,’” Mitten said. “And he said, ‘Well I have a petition from like 70 students demanding a course. Will you develop one?’”

Mitten said yes. His experience teaching and expanding his understanding of sports law in Houston led him to accept a position at Marquette University Law School in 2001, where he eventually became executive director of Marquette’s National Sports Law Institute. 

After joining Marquette’s faculty, Mitten had written various medical journals and law review articles that caught the eye of the NCAA, who invited him to join their Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports based on his insight on subjects such as doping among college athletes.

His experience and contributions at CSMAS earned him an appointed to the Court of Arbitration for Sports, an international arbitration body headquartered in Lausanne, Switzerland, that forms smaller bodies to preside over each Olympic Games.

Reflecting on his experience at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, and looking forward to the now-postponed 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Mitten said that the impact of the pandemic has revealed much about the value of sports in our world.

“I think we’re learning through this COVID-19 just how interconnected we are, and sports is the unifying effect,” Mitten said.

That truth is one of the reasons Mitten said he greatly values the Sports and Society Initiative’s work. The research, the programming and ultimately, the student engagement, he said, are what inspire him most about SSI.

“Don’t underestimate the power of students, particularly collectively,” Mitten said. “If not for that, I probably wouldn’t have gone this route.