Skilled labor-- MSU professor helped shatter age-old myth of student athletes

By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

Robert McCormick is not just a fan of college and professional sports--he has used his expertise in labor law and sports law to help student athletes.

McCormick, who has taught Labor Law, Sports Law and Estates and Trusts at Michigan State University College of Law for more than three decades, graduated from Cranbrook School in 1965--along with classmate Mitt Romney, received his bachelor's degree in political science from MSU, and served as president of the MSU Senior Class.

"While in college I took a course in the history of the U.S. labor movement from Professor Charles Larrowe, and it piqued my interest in law and in labor law in particular," he says.

The Highland Park native took a summer job in international labor relations at Ford Motor Co. before enrolling at the University of Michigan Law School where he took classes from labor law professors Ted St. Antoine and Harry Edwards. He spent the summer after his freshman year working in the office of the General Counsel of the UAW.

"It was clear to me at that point that I was destined to go into labor law," he says.

After graduating in 1973, McCormick spent 5 years as a field attorney with the National Labor Relations Board in the Denver Regional Office, prosecuting unfair labor practice complaints throughout Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah.

"It was a perfect place to start, with a terrific group of lawyers doing interesting work," he says.

In 1978, McCormick worked in Washington, D.C. on the staff of Hon. Howard Jenkins Jr., a member of the NLRB; then worked as Assistant Director of Gift and Estate Planning at The University of Chicago, before joining the faculty of Detroit College of Law in the fall of 1979. He served as Associate Dean for Academic Affairs from 1986-89; and also served as a visiting professor at Wayne State University Law School in 1984.

Sports law caught his attention in the early 1980s.

"I was always fond of athletics, and began to notice many sports law related issues emerging in the courts," he says. "Very few people were teaching the subject at the time, and there were no casebooks or similar published materials yet."

McCormick put together his own materials with the help of Robert Berry at Boston College Law School, and taught the class one summer. After a few more semesters, he invited his colleague and antitrust professor, Matthew McKinnon, to join him and the two taught the Sports Law course for the next two decades.

In 1984 the duo published, "Professional Football's Draft Eligibility Rule: The Labor Exemption and the Antitrust Laws" in the Emory Law Journal, arguing that the NFL Draft eligibility rule--requiring college underclassmen to wait until three years after their high school class had graduated to become eligible for the NFL Draft--was a combination in restraint of trade in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. The pair published a similar op-ed in The New York Times.

In 2003, an ESPN reporter doing a story about Maurice Clarett, a star halfback for Ohio State suspended for the upcoming football season for the Buckeyes, contacted McCormick. The reporter, who had read McCormick's 1984 piece in The Times, asked if he still held that position.

"I said I did and that Clarett would have a good case were he to challenge the NFL rule."

McCormick appeared on ESPN's "Outside the Lines" to explain his position on the subject, and also published an "Open Letter to Maurice Clarett" in The New York Times explaining why he believed Clarett, who helped lead the Buckeyes to the national title in 2002, should prevail in an antitrust challenge to the rule. Ultimately he joined Clarett's legal team.

"We prevailed in federal district court, but that decision was reversed by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals," he says. "The opinion, authored by now-Justice (Sonia) Sotomayor, expanded the labor exemption to the antitrust laws in ways neither Congress nor the Supreme Court envisioned."

McCormick's articles on labor law and sports law were published in law reviews at the University of Michigan Law School, Vanderbilt University College of Law, Washington and Lee University Law School, and Villanova Law School, among others; as well as in The New York Times, National Law Journal, Detroit Free Press, Detroit News, Michigan Bar Journal, and others.

A labor arbitrator in public and private labor-management disputes during the 1980s, in 1988 McCormick became a member of the National Academy of Arbitrators, and in 2007 was named a Fellow of the College of Labor & Employment Lawyers.

He became active in the Labor and Employment Law Section of the State Bar of Michigan, serving as its Chairman from 1991 to 1992. Under a grant from that Section, he and his wife Amy, who is also a professor at MSU College of Law, wrote and produced a video documentary, "Toil, Trouble, and Triumph: The Legacy of Michigan Labor Lawyers," chronicling the contribution of Michigan labor lawyers to the development of labor law.

Since 2003, the couple has focused on the world of NCAA sports. In 2006 they published "The Myth of the Student-Athlete: The College Athlete as Employee," in the Washington Law Review, taking the position that NCAA athletes in revenue-generating sports meet the legal definition of "employee" under the National Labor Relations Act and should hold that status under the law.

The pair went on to publish articles at the University of San Diego Law School, Florida Coastal Law School, the University of Texas Law School, and Wake Forest University Law School, in which they demonstrated that major college sports are highly professional, commercial activities.

"They are 'amateur' only in the pernicious sense that the athletes who help create the enormous value of sports are prohibited from earning compensation for their labor," McCormick says. "We also pointed out that the NCAA amateurism rules have an adverse impact on African-American athletes who are disproportionately responsible for producing the income in major college football and basketball, but are denied the financial rewards they help produce."

McCormick and his wife enjoy attending athletic and cultural events and are staunch Spartan supporters. They also enjoy bicycling and have ridden the 400-mile Erie Canal route, from Buffalo to Albany, three times as well as riding in Europe. McCormick plays handball at the Michigan Athletic Club in East Lansing, and a couple of years ago helped dedicate the Norman Young Handball Courts in Lansing.

Published: Thu, Jun 28, 2012