Conflict is essential to the popularity of sports. Baseball, football, basketball, soccer and hockey clubs clash for championships, eternal glory and bragging rights. Professionals in golf, tennis, skiing, surfing and mixed martial arts compete for big checks, trophies and the right to be called number one in the world. This constant struggle is why sports enthrall us.

Professional athletes are not happy with second place, risking injury to gain an extra yard, check a puck handler into the boards or kick a game-winning goal. Outside the lines stalemates are handled in a somewhat less aggressive way. Sports arbiters resolve disputes between leagues and unions, athletes and franchises as well as seemingly impassable contract disagreements that deal with anything from real estate leases to licensing agreements. It’s a long-used method to avoid litigation—courtrooms and costly legal fees—along with a time-tested way to avoid damaging important yet fragile relationships.

Major League Baseball has harnessed the usefulness of arbitration for over thirty years. Chicago Cubs’ Cy Young Award winning pitcher Jake Arrieta is up for salary arbitration heading into the 2016 season. The Cubs’ reportedly submitted a salary of $7.5 million while Arrieta’s agent believes he’s worth $13 million in 2016. Unless the two sides come to an agreement, the case goes before an arbiter to choose one of the two proposals as the ace’s salary for the upcoming season. That’s the crux of arbitration; it’s a way to promote a settlement between two parties before a third-party must intervene.

Arbitration, by definition, is “the hearing and determining of a dispute or the settling of differences between parties by a person or persons chosen or agreed to by them.” It has been used, across amateur, collegiate, Olympic and professional levels, to handle salary disputes, review suspensions and challenge levied fines along with collective bargaining and labor grievances. The two sides agree to the process and then submit arguments, documents, reasoning and data to make their case. The American Arbitration Association suggests the benefits of handling conflict this way:

  • The process is confidential, private, and less formal than litigation.
  • Parties have the opportunity to participate in the selection of an arbitrator or arbitrators.
  • Parties have the opportunity to select arbitrators with experience and familiarity with the nature of the dispute.
  • Arbitration decisions are generally final and binding upon the parties to the case.

How does one become this kind of peacekeeper? The job involves listening, judging and fairly rendering an unbiased decision often in a short period of time. Retired judges, sports law attorneys and sports law professors are often called upon to be arbiters in the sports universe. For these folks, the position is part-time and either secondary to their daily calling or done after they’ve formally retired from another walk of life. To make a career out of it you must become an expert in that which you seek to arbitrate.

Colleges and universities offer certifications and master’s degrees in conflict resolution. That kind of schooling is one part of the puzzle. You’ll learn how to stay unbiased, ways to weigh arguments and how to look for the signal through the noise. The rest involves building up expertise in the field of sports business. Contracts, union negotiations, player grievances, labor disputes, doping issues and franchise building all come with some kind of conflict. The experiences you have in any and all of these arenas add to your qualifications. Intern with an amateur or professional league, take a job on the team side or study the fields of sports business and sports law for a deeper understanding of the issues you’ll eventually rule on.  

Arbiters use precise writing, sharp listening and critical-thinking skills to apply rules, pour over facts and pen decisions that are well-reasoned and well-written. Those traits, along with decisive decision-making and strong interpersonal skills, create a fair-and-balanced arbitration process for each party. If you have a measured approach to weighing decisions and the desire to bring your game to the sports world then arbiter might be the career for you.

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