Professor helped shatter 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, received his bachelor's degree in political science from MSU, and served as president of the MSU Senior Class.

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.

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. He 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."

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.

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.

They believe 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.

They've published articles 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.

Published: Mon, Sep 10, 2012