Wright Lindsey Jennings attorney Judy Henry traveled a winding path into sports law, but her love for athletics was evident from a young age.
Henry grew up in Texarkana, and when she started school, her athletic ability and competitive nature began to take shape. In third grade, President John F. Kennedy pushed the President’s Council on Physical Fitness program where students would practice athletic events for a semester and then be tested at the end of the term. If students reached specific benchmarks, they received a patch.
Henry took patch-collecting very seriously from the start.
“That was my first competition where there was a benchmark set and you had to achieve it,” she says. “That was really empowering to me because it was something that the girls and the boys did, there was one set of benchmarks and we could all do it.”
Henry dabbled in gymnastics from a young age, but fifth grade is when the sport became her focus. She credits that opportunity to the passing of Title IX legislation.
“There was still not a program within our school system until Title IX became an act,” she says. “It required the schools to provide equitable programs for the guys and girls, and that’s when gymnastics started to get big in our school system and city.”
She competed starting in sixth grade and ended high school on a five-time state championship team at Arkansas High School. But her journey didn’t stop there. Henry attended the University of Central Arkansas on a gymnastics scholarship, making her a first-generation college student. She obtained a general science undergraduate degree with plans to become a pediatrician. After graduation, she attended the University of Arkansas to get a master’s degree in education and science research.
Gymnastics was still a big part of Henry’s life as she coached the women’s gymnastics club while obtaining her master’s degree.
“And it was during that time, one day after practice, that one of my professors came up to me and told me she had a book she wanted me to read,” Henry says. “It was a sports law book, and it married the concept of sports with the concept of equity and justice and how the legal system has changed sports.”
It was the first time she truly realized she was a product of Title IX.
“I realized I had gotten to where I was not on my own merits, but because other people thought it was important for women to be given the opportunity to keep their bodies in shape and healthy and be competitive throughout their lives in a way that was important to our society.”
Reading that book and being around other law students piqued her interest, so she made an appointment with the dean to see what it would take to apply. After being advised to study and take the LSAT, she did just that, passed the exam and was admitted into the law school.
“We joke that I walked out of the gym and into the courtroom,” she says.
Henry’s early practice covered a wide range of business and bank litigations, but she always hoped she could one day play in the sports law arena that initially gained her interest. Soon, it became a reality.
Henry now leads WLJ’s sports law practice and is a certified contract advisor for the NFL. With Name, Image, Likeness (NIL) contracts now allowed in collegiate sports, the bulk of her sports workload is building contracts between businesses and athletes that meet both motivations, but don’t compromise an athlete’s eligibility. She closely monitors state law, university rules and NCAA rules to make sure the athlete and business are meeting all the regulations. The complication, she says, is that regulations are constantly changing, so her team must constantly stay informed.
Henry’s team has been at the forefront of the NIL action since its inception just a few years ago, including one coworker who helped pen the Frank Broyles Publicity Rights Protection Act in 2016, Arkansas’ predecessor to its NIL statute. Henry navigates multiple relationships with national brands and athletes from coast to coast in a variety of sports, and she wrote the first WWE contract for a student athlete in the U.S.
Her experience as a former collegiate athlete lends itself well to these negotiations.
“I think because I was a student athlete, I’m married to a former student athlete and I raised a student athlete, I can relate to not only the athlete, but the athlete’s parents, grandparents or whoever their team is around them because I don’t have to guess what’s going on in their head most of the time,” she says.
It’s a track record that also lends her credibility with businesses.
“I think they know that I didn’t just come onto the scene two years ago when the NIL started, and that I’ve been involved in sports and with student athletes my entire professional career, as well as my personal life before then.”
More contractual work is coming down the sports pipeline that should keep Henry busy for years to come. NIL contracts for high school athletes, the sports collective scene and state legislative interference are issues she says will only rise in coming years. Henry is confident she and her team can handle whatever comes their way.
Today, her practice has grown to encompass causes of personal interest including justice, faith and even working with the CEO of Miss America during the #MeToo movement to transition away from the swimsuit competition. But Henry remembers the sports law book’s impact on her all those years ago and is proud to be a part of that process for future generations.
“[Title IX] carried down through the educational system all the way to a little girl in south Arkansas who was in a gym and didn’t know what this was going to mean for her in 20 years.”
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