Arbiter plays by the rules

Ravens: Stephen B. Burbank, the law professor who will rule on the Terrell Owens case, is described by colleagues as knowledgeable, sensible and fair.

March 12, 2004|By Ed Waldman | Ed Waldman,SUN STAFF

Stephen B. Burbank, the man who will decide this weekend whether Terrell Owens plays the 2004 football season in Philadelphia or Baltimore, admits it: He likes the Eagles.

Stand down, Ravens fans. The Eagles that Burbank enjoys feature musicians Glenn Frey and Don Henley, not quarterback Donovan McNabb and coach Andy Reid.

"I grew up in the '60s," Burbank said. "I like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the Eagles, music like that."

Burbank, 57, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School in Philadelphia, was picked nearly two years ago by the NFL and its players association to arbitrate disputes involving their collective bargaining agreement.

Owens is seeking to become a free agent and wants to play for the Eagles. He was traded from the San Francisco 49ers to the Ravens last week after his agent failed to void the last two years of his contract by a Feb. 21 deadline, which would have made him a free agent.

The case will be Burbank's first. He will take testimony by conference call tomorrow, and will issue his ruling Sunday. That decision must be approved by U.S. District Judge David Doty of Minneapolis, who oversees the 1993 class-action settlement between the NFL and the players union.

Reached in Malibu, Calif., where he was vacationing on the beach with his wife and 22-year-old son, reading The Da Vinci Code during spring break, Burbank declined to speak about the Owens matter.

"I am a judge, essentially, and can't talk about [it] at all," Burbank said, adding that he has been "deluged" with phone calls.

But, in response to a question about how he would assure Ravens fans that their team would get a fair shot from a guy who has lived in Philadelphia since 1975, he offered this:

"I was asked by one of the lawyers when I was being interviewed [for the special master job] if I was a football fan. And I answered honestly, no."

Burbank's friends and colleagues back him up on that.

"I'm a bigger football fan than Steve Burbank," said Linda Silberman, a law professor at New York University who has known Burbank since 1980 and called him a "very, very close friend."

"Steve is certainly knowledgeable, but does not carry my passion. [That's] probably a good thing, given his job. ... If this case can be decided on the basis of a set of operative rules, he will give those careful attention.

"In some sense, he's the perfect person to decide this."

Anita L. Allen-Castellito has been a law professor at Penn since 1998. She estimated that she's been in 20 staff meetings with Burbank since then.

"His personality I think suits those kinds of roles," said Allen-Castellito, who is spending this academic year as a visiting professor at Princeton's law school. "He does have a very, very fair, `sensible guy' kind of bearing and intellect.

"In a faculty meeting if there's a discussion that's been obscure or beating around the bush, or going off in the wrong direction, Steve is often the person that had to bring things back to a reasonable center ... to get the discussion back on track."

Regina Austin, a law professor at Penn since 1977, said Burbank was "among the fairer people on the faculty."

"He's tough, because he's very smart," she said. "He sort of cuts through the crap. ... He goes to the heart of the matter."

Burbank grew up in New York's Westchester County, a fan of the NHL's Rangers and baseball's Yankees.

He still has those allegiances, he said, although he roots for the Philadelphia Flyers "unless they're playing the Rangers."

Burbank graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 1968 with a degree in classics, and then graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1973.

He spent his first year out of law school as the clerk to a justice on the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, then went to Washington for a year as a clerk to Warren Burger, then chief justice of the United States.

Burbank was hired as Penn's general counsel in 1975 and joined its law school faculty in 1979. According to his biography on the law school's Web site, his expertise is in complex litigation, judicial administration and civil procedure. He has been involved in "alternative dispute resolution" since the early 1980s.

In November 2002, Judge Doty appointed him to the NFL's special master position, which is filled after the NFL and the players' union identify and interview candidates. Both sides interview candidates and then submit one choice, whom the judge must approve. Since 1993, there have been three special masters who have decided a total of 60 cases.

The last case decided by a special master also involved the Ravens. In 2001, punter Kyle Richardson lost a decision over whether he had enough accrued seasons to become a free agent.

Burbank said he didn't raise his hand for the job.

"I've been doing mediation and arbitration for almost 20 years now, and not in the sports world," Burbank said. "I assume that's the reason I was identified as a possible special master."

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