College Football Trade-Secrets Scandal

A scandal involving Wake Forest University’s football team offers lessons for companies protecting their trade secrets. And a phenomenal name.

The Wake Forest coaches gave one of their radio broadcasters, Tommy Elrod, full access to the football team’s game plans. And Elrod has been leaking those game plans to Wake’s opponents — for years. Thus: “WakeyLeaks.”

Since the story broke, several universities have admitted receiving game plans, and the Atlantic Coast conference has fined Louisville and Virginia Tech.

A college-football game plan can be a trade secret. After all, it is information that, if kept secret, arguably offers economic advantage. Given the amount of money at stake, it’s remarkable that college and professional teams don’t adopt the same level of protections as a company guarding its trade secrets.

This episode shows that when it comes to trade secrets, access must be on a “need to know” basis. Wake Forest had no reason to share the full details of its game plans with a  radio broadcaster. When only give your trade secrets to those who need them for their jobs, you reduce the chance of unwanted disclosure.

Also, like Louisville and West Virginia, many companies encounter a competitor’s trade secrets, most often through new hires that bring a former employer’s information with them. But using this information creates a huge risk. Here, Louisville and West Virginia are facing fines and bad PR (and, though unlikely, a possible lawsuit for trade-secrets misappropriation). Use your employee-onboarding process to ensure that new employees don’t have, and don’t use, a prior employer’s trade secrets.

Trade-secret issues arise in all businesses and industries, including college and professional sports. And all companies face the risk of unwanted theft or disclosure of their proprietary information. It is critical to work with an attorney to protect your trade secrets.

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