Back to school

During an ‘exciting and gratifying year,’ Dionne Koller Fine LL.M. ’22, a tenured professor of law, became a student again

In July 2020, Dionne Koller Fine LL.M. ’22 appeared before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Introducing herself as a professor of law at the University of Baltimore and director of its Center on Sports and the Law, she testified in no uncertain terms against efforts by the National Collegiate Athletics Association to secure an antitrust exemption that would preserve its restrictions against endorsement income for college athletes.

“I support allowing athletes to profit from their name, image, and likeness. These are rights that all of us enjoy, as American citizens,” Koller explains. “I was especially concerned that the NCAA was pushing a narrative that restoring these rights would hurt women’s sports, and nothing could be further from the truth.” Data shows that women athletes are doing very well as social media influencers — a trend that not only helps individual athletes, but also promotes their sport. Women’s college gymnastics, she notes, has never been more popular.

A year later, Koller arrived in Cambridge to undertake a very different role — as a student in Harvard Law School’s Master of Laws (LL.M.) program. Although she would advise other academics and aspiring law teachers that there are many different times to pursue graduate study, she had not expected to do so herself, particularly in mid-career. But, in planning a sabbatical year after the conclusion of an appointment as Baltimore Law’s associate dean for academic affairs, Koller realized that this timing was perfect for her.

She decided to come to Harvard Law in light of its long and deep involvement in sports law (among other things, the late Professor Emeritus Paul C. Weiler LL.M. ’65 co-authored the first casebook in the field). And she opted to enroll in the LL.M. program because it would enable her both to undertake the substantial scholarly work required under the terms of her sabbatical and to gain insights that would help her in returning to legal education and in future senior leadership roles.

“I think I’m a good teacher, I’m empathetic, but there are ways — especially after having once again experienced the nervous energy that comes with being called on in class or downloading an exam and sensing the clock beginning to tick — that I will be much more in tune with my students after this,” she admits. She has also taken a lot of notes on the ways in which Harvard Law School engages its students, from involving them in planning for commencement to lunches with the dean.

Koller has been teaching law since 1998, when she left practice as a litigator with a Washington, D.C. law firm to teach legal writing at her alma mater, The George Washington University Law School. “I was very glad to have practiced law, but once I had the opportunity to teach a class, I really loved it,” she recalls. After teaching and serving as an assistant dean at GWU for several years, she took a faculty appointment at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, then joined the Baltimore Law faculty in 2006.

From the beginning of her career as an academic, Koller has focused her scholarship on sports law. “It looked to me like an area that was really under-theorized. It was exciting to be part of growing and building a field, and I think we’re still in that moment,” she notes. Early on, the emphasis in sports law was on professional sports, with a focus on antitrust and labor law. “Of course, that’s very important work. But I saw there wasn’t as much legal scholarship on Olympic and amateur sports as I thought there should be, given how prominent these two settings are in our culture.”

Koller has written and lectured, among other topics, about the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, as a private not-for-profit organization with very public purposes; about athletes’ health and safety; and about Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in any education program that receives funding from the federal government.

At Harvard Law School, Koller has focused her attention on younger athletes. Her 50-page LL.M. paper deals with a topic that has not received much treatment in legal scholarship — identifying and analyzing the systems for people under age 18 to engage in sports in the United States. Unlike other countries with government agencies that regulate youth sports, the U.S. has a largely privatized and unregulated youth sports system that serves as a gateway to higher-level sports programs, even those embedded in public high schools.

“Why are kids training and traveling and competing so much? The medical profession has been pointing out the harms associated with this system for a very long time, but we aren’t doing anything about it,” Koller argues. “My answer is that there are too many stakeholders, ranging from parents to sponsors to higher-level sports programs, who benefit from the surplus generated by our existing way of approaching youth sports.”

She has also welcomed the opportunity to take classes on topics very different from sports law. “As law teachers, we read legal scholarship and try to keep up with our fields, but the other happy side benefit of being a student again was that I could study what interested me right now and see where that leads. It has been an open-ended intellectual journey that continues to enrich and surprise me.”

For example, Koller was especially interested in taking Feminist Legal Theory with Professor Janet Halley. “Not only is she a fantastic teacher and thinker, but she has given so much time and energy to providing feedback on my work, and that has been incredibly energizing,” Koller says. She found that she was able to draw on that course and others to make connections in her LL.M. paper. In particular, she cites Professor Scott Brewer’s seminar on “The Jurisprudence of Excellence” and Professor Noah Feldman’s seminar “Power: Ethics, Means, Ends.” “Of course, sports, and sports structure and regulation, is all about power — power over athletes. It was another exciting way to draw connections among different theories and real-world case examples.”

Outside of class, Koller found another “opportunity for cross-pollination” in the Child Advocacy Program’s writing group. “I shared my ideas, and ultimately presented my paper, and the group was phenomenally supportive,” she notes. “The other students in the LL.M. program, and the J.D. students I’ve met, are incredibly accomplished, interesting, and kind. Every time I’ve had an opportunity to talk with them, I’ve learned something new, and looked at things in a different way.”

Although she has found her time at Harvard “exciting and gratifying,” Koller is looking forward to returning to the University of Baltimore in the fall. She’ll also focus on a significant public service role — as the co-chair, with former elite athlete Han Xiao, of the Commission on the State of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. The group, established by Congress in the wake of the Larry Nassar-USA Gymnastics scandal, has been charged with completing a 10-point review of the committee’s operations, from recent reforms and diversity initiatives to finances. After securing the necessary funding and clearing other administrative hurdles, the commission expects to begin its work in earnest this summer.