Law students vindicate Olympic class boxers’ rights

December 17, 2011

Students at the University of Colorado Law School, under the supervision of the school’s public service program lawyer and a Boulder attorney, won the right for USA women and men elite amateur boxers to compete in a “box-off” for the 2011 Pan American Games qualifiers, a precursor to the 2012 Olympic Games. Working with the U.S. Olympic Committee Athlete Ombudsman John Ruger, a Boulder resident and Olympic biathlete, Colorado Law’s Andy Hartman led students in representing the elite athletes, who could not afford counsel. Ruger approached Colorado Law at the end of February to assist the athletes with their grievance. The “box-off” took place March 17?–20, 2011 at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The four second-year Colorado Law students—Sarah Abelson, John Dwyer, Nate Jewell and Kira Robinson—represented elite boxer Caroline “Carrie” Barry in her successful claim against USA Boxing. Under U.S. Olympic Committee rules, the case also affects approximately 20 female boxers and 60 male boxers. USA Boxing was ordered to conduct a single elimination ”box-off,” similar to a basketball tournament bracket, at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs before the end of March.

Barry had been captain and a member of the USA National Boxing Team since 2004. She filed a grievance, asserting that USA Boxing improperly changed its rules for sending boxers to the Pan-Am qualifiers, thus violating her and the other affected athletes’ rights under the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act and U.S. Olympic Committee rules.

Hartman, Colorado Law’s Experiential Learning Director and Paul Gross, a Boulder attorney, filed a grievance on behalf of the students with the official arbitrator on March 1, 2011, and a hearing was held on March 7, 2011 in Denver. While originally filed only with women’s boxing in mind, upon request from USA Boxing, the arbitrator joined male boxers as athletes affected by the arbitration.

This increased the significance of the proceeding since women compete only in three Olympic weight classes, while men enjoy 10 categories. The arbitrator issued his ruling on March 8, 2011 in favor of Barry and indirectly in favor of the other athletes who will now have the chance to compete in the box-off.

“It took guts for the athletes to pursue this case, but given their success in the ring, we were not surprised,” said Hartman. “This win, however, goes to the students—they made the opening and closing statements and examined most of the witnesses.”

As stated by the arbitrator, in December 2010, USA Boxing found itself in a difficult position regarding sending athletes to the Pan-Am game qualifiers. USA Boxing realized that its existing qualifying system was not in compliance with international rules. USA Boxing believed that boxers could win spots for the USA team during the qualifying rounds, and thereafter USA Boxing would decide which athletes would fill the spots earned. In fact, the rules stated that boxers could only qualify individually, not for team slots. Thus, in order to comply with international rules, USA Boxing would have to change its own rules retroactively. It is this rule change that the arbitrator found to be null and void in ordering the box-off.

“Kira, Sarah, John, and Nate’s outstanding work on behalf of these talented women is what it’s all about at Colorado Law—we have a commitment to educating our students and serving those in need,” said Hartman. “The students made us proud today.”

Colorado Law has a long history of providing pro bono assistance to Colorado’s underserved communities. In addition to the public service program directed by Hartman, Colorado Law houses nine clinics staffed by clinical faculty serving hundreds of clients in important areas such as family law, criminal matters, juvenile law, entrepreneurial law, civil law, technology, natural resources, appeals, and American Indian rights.