When it comes to sports law, UNH's Michael McCann is a perennial MVP

Friday, July 10, 2015
Michael McCann - UNH Law

“Mike thinks on his feet. He’s resourceful. He doesn’t take no for an answer. He finds a way to get it done.”
Sports Illustrated website editor B.J. Schechter

It was a Friday evening in early November 2013, and Michael McCann was at a swanky steakhouse in Concord, N.H. The University of New Hampshire’s School of Law had just hosted the first day of its annual Intellectual Property Scholars Roundtable, and McCann, a law professor and director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute, had joined his colleagues for a meal after the event. Conversations were in full swing, dinner had just been served, and McCann was just about to take his first bite of steak. And then his phone started buzzing.

I have to go,” McCann told Alexandra Roberts, an assistant professor of intellectual property at the law school. “The O’Bannon decision just came down.”

McCann excused himself and dashed off, steak uneaten, a quiet night with coworkers replaced with a pressing deadline for his other job — as a legal writer and analyst for Sports Illustrated magazine. For months now, he had been following the case of former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon, who had slapped the NCAA with a class-action lawsuit for using the images of former and current student athletes for commercial purposes, and it was go time. He had just a couple hours to read up on the details, write a story and turn it in.

It was, Roberts recalls, a “Superman/Clark Kent moment,” of which McCann seems to have many. “Mike is kind of a superhero,” she says. “He’s got two full-time jobs, and he makes them both happen successfully and with aplomb.”

McCann does have something of the air of a superhero about him. He’s the definition of mild-mannered — casual suits, tousled hair and a relaxed smile. But under the 39-year-old’s boyish looks is a palpable, humming energy; even when sitting still, he seems as if he’s in motion. When the conversation turns to sports or law, a subtle change comes over McCann, a little like the moment before Clark Kent disappears into a phone booth and reappears as Superman. He still looks relaxed, but his mind is working swiftly — forming a complex legal analysis, teasing out implications and creating and explaining an argument that could satisfy a demanding judge and a stubborn sports fan in a few moments. 

He himself sees his career in a more modest light, even though, on a given day, he may deliver a lecture to students on athletic contract negotiations, write a story for Sports Illustrated on complex league regulations and offer analysis of a sports star’s murder trial for CNN or ESPN. He says it’s less Superman and more Tony Phillips, the versatile major league ballplayer who played seven different positions during his four years with the Detroit Tigers. 

“Phillips is the kind of player you want to be if you’re a sports lawyer,” McCann says. “Someone who’s able to play everywhere and be conversant in anti-trust law, in criminal law, in contracts, intellectual property and tort law.”

That’s precisely the sort of lawyer and journalist McCann is — and plenty of people have noticed. While a full-time professor at the Missisippi College School of Law from 2005 to 2008, McCann racked up a full slate of awards, including three different “professor of the year” awards in 2008. On social media, he is a sports law celebrity — close to 37,000 sports fan follow his Twitter account, @mccannsportslaw. In 2011, the Society for Social Psychology and Personality awarded him its Media Prize.  In 2012, he made The Huffington Post’s list of the “40 Must-Follow Twitter Accounts for NBA Fanatics” and The Sporting Chart’s list of the country’s “Top 50 NBA Minds”; the following year, Boston Magazine added him to their list of the “best Boston sports personalities on Twitter.” When sports fans and media outlets want a fresh take on the story of the day — from national stories like the Boston Marathon bombing to coverage of a NHL labor dispute — they turn to McCann. But it wasn’t so long ago that McCann was on the other side of the desk. 


Michael McCann - UNH Sports LawAhead of the Story

Somewhat improbably, it was NBA commentator Dick Vitale who set the Massachusetts native on the path to becoming one of the country’s top  sports lawyers. A diehard Boston Celtics fan who had suffered through the 1990s as the team struggled in the wake of superstar Larry Bird’s retirement, in 2001, McCann was keeping a close eye on the team’s NBA draft picks when Vitale said something that caught his attention. 

“I remember watching the draft, and hearing Dick Vitale say it was a big mistake that these kids were jumping from high school to the NBA,” McCann recalls. Vitale went on — players drafted out of high school couldn’t make it in the league. They performed poorly on the court and, off the court, faced a litany of legal and financial troubles. But for McCann, it didn’t add up. 

“I thought: he’s wrong. Empirically, it’s incorrect,” he says. So he set out to prove it. He was in his last year of law school at the University of Virginia and taking a class with Donald Dell, a sports attorney and former agent who had represented tennis stars Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors, among other athletes. He dug into the data and did a study of all the NBA players who’d been arrested in the last 15 years. The average age turned out to be 26 or 27 — proof, McCann says, that an early NBA career had little to do with off-court troubles.

Dell gave McCann an A, and he published his findings in the school’s sports law journal, and that was it, at least for a few years (“It was in a law review,” he says; “people don’t read them”). He finished law school and took a job in Boston, practicing anti-trust litigation and some intellectual property law. 

And then Maurice Clarett sued the National Football League. It was 2004, and Clarett, a star running back for Ohio State University, had retained New Jersey attorney Alan Milstein to fight a ruling that said he was too young to be drafted into the NFL. McCann sent his law review article to Milstein, figuring it might be of some interest. Milsten invited McCann to join the case, and though Clarett ultimately lost — the decision against him was written by future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor — it was a turning point in McCann’s career. “I don’t think she got that one right,” McCann says, laughing, of Sotomayor. “But that experience was really important. I tell my students: I wasn’t athletic, I’m not a schmoozer. I wrote a paper, and that got me into (sports) law. This is a path for them to get ahead of a story, to really embrace a topic and analyze it in a way that’s interesting.”

When it comes to sports law, McCann has been ahead of the story for years.
After the Clarett case, he enrolled at Harvard, where he earned a master’s degree in law and started on the track to becoming a law professor. His first teaching job was at the University of Mississippi Law School, a place he still returns every summer to teach a sports law class. But with family still in Massachusetts, he jumped at the chance to move to the Vermont Law School, where he was named director of the school’s sports law institute in 2010. Three years after that, he crossed the border to New Hampshire to establish the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at UNH Law. 

Despite the media spotlight, McCann thrives on working with students. “He has a huge following among students … and there are students around the building who’ve identified him as their mentor,” says Roberts, with whom he co-directs the Institute. Because he’s has one foot in the academic world and another in the larger sports media world, “he’s got his finger on the pulse” of sports law in a way few others do, Roberts explains. Indeed, McCann’s two worlds overlap frequently. McCann talks in class about the stories he’s working on, and though he doesn’t tell them to, students read his work and follow him on Twitter, watching in real time as McCann applies the legal principles he talks about in class to major cases.


In the Spotlight

McCann’s students — and sports fans around the world — have come to see that there are few places where sports and the law don’t intersect. It’s not just contract negotiations for big-name stars and collective bargaining agreements for players unions. The last few years have seen high-profile lawsuits over how the NFL handles concussions among its players and whether college athletes should be paid. 

And, increasingly, the legal troubles of athletes, team owners and sponsors are played out in public. In 2014, the NFL came under fire for its handling of domestic violence allegations against Ray Rice, and Adrian Peterson’s child abuse charges ignited a national debate on corporal punishment. Perhaps 2014’s biggest sports law story was the strange saga of former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. In April of that year, a recording surfaced of Sterling making racist remarks to a female friend. By the end of the summer, Sterling had been banned for life from the NBA and his wife, Shelly, had forced the team’s $2 billion sale.

Michael McCann - UNH Sports LawThe morning the Sterling story broke, McCann woke up to a text message from CBS Sports Radio host Maggie Gray, asking him to come on that day’s show and talk about Sterling. The whole thing was “odd and offensive and had a lot of things going on,” McCann says. He went on Gray’s show, wrote an analysis for Sports Illustrated about how the NBA could respond to the video, and, quite suddenly, found himself covering the story for the rest of the summer.

“It just exploded. You had the president talking about it while he was in China, Lebron James talking about boycotting the NBA, sponsors talking about cutting ties, [NBA commissioner] Adam Silver issuing a lifetime ban,” McCann says. He filed some 50 stories for Sports Illustrated during the next three months. It was sports law’s moment in the international spotlight: the Sterling case encompassed internal league regulations, tax law and estate law across multiple jurisdictions.     

It was a different basketball scandal that got McCann the SI gig, back in 2007: radio personality Don Imus had made disparaging comments on-air about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, and an editor asked McCann to offer his analysis of the situation for the magazine. Already several years into his own sports law blog at that point, McCann agreed, and his analysis caught the eye of SI website editor B.J. Schechter, who brought McCann on as an occasional contributor. Recently, he wrote coverage and analysis of the Aaron Hernandez murder trial in Boston.

“He understands how the average person thinks. He’s got the mind of a lawyer and the sentimentality of a fan, and I think that serves him very well,” Schechter says. “These are very complex issues and people don’t want legal jargon. They want it explained in a way that’s not patronizing and is understandable.”

Schechter recalls working with McCann in 2012 on a series of stories about Bobby Petrino, the former University of Arkansas football coach whose motorcycle accident uncovered a scandal: his affair with — and illegal hiring of — a 25-year-old former Arkansas volleyball player named Jessica Dorrell. When Arkansas blocked the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request McCann filed for documents related to Dorrell’s hiring, saying that it only had to fulfill FOIA requests from Arkansas residents, he had a former student practicing law in the state file the FOIA request on his behalf. The documents came through “and we had a blockbuster story, because we were able to get a treasure-trove of information very quickly, in an innovative way,” Schechter says. “Mike thinks on his feet. He’s resourceful. He doesn’t take no for an answer. … He finds a way to get it done.”

While Schechter’s assessment might carry a whiff of scouting report about it, McCann is the first to say he’s not an athlete. Growing up, he played basketball (“I’m not tall,” he says) and baseball (“I’m not fast”), but “I was never anything special,” he says. Today, his activity of choice is running. And though his prolific posts for Sports Illustrated and active Twitter feed might lead one to believe that he is constantly watching and thinking about sports, that’s not the case. “I am definitely on the lookout for issues I can write about,” he says. “Some people think I’m at home, watching sports constantly. But I’m much more likely to be watching a movie with my wife.”

He’s also likely to be up late, filing a story or answering emails from students. “He’ll take a student’s resume and reach out in every direction until he finds them a job,” says Roberts. “And he’s been an incredible mentor to me. Our offices are a few feet apart, and he always makes time for me. He’s a good cheerleader and an amazing person to have on my team.”

For sports fans following the latest legal tribulations of their home team or favorite athlete, and for students around UNH Law, McCann seems ubiquitous, in the classroom with students or talking to colleagues in the hall one minute; on a cable news program or a radio show the next. Roberts says he’s the reason many students have been attracted to the sports and entertainment law program.

“There are a lot of people who enjoy Mike’s work, who feel like they know him even if they don’t,” Roberts says. “There are students who are here because of Mike. They say, ‘I want to be where Mike McCann is.’” 

They could be referring to the classroom or the web. But what they likely mean is that they want to be one step ahead, on the cusp of the next frontier of sports, anticipating the next big story, ready to play.~

Of Torts + Touchdowns: McCann has been a media go-to for Deflategate — the NFL investigation into whether the New England Patriots deliberately deflated footballs used during their AFC victory over the Indianapolis Colts — and now, he’s parlaying that expertise into a first-of-its-kind undergraduate course at UNH. Called Deflategate: the Intersection of Sports, Law and Journalism, the course will be offered in Durham this fall, and will cover the many legal and journalistic issues the controversy has raised. 

Introduced shortly after the NFL announced disciplinary actions against Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, the course itself has garnered a good deal of media attention — and debate about whether a single sports controversy, no matter how significant, is fodder for a college-level course. But McCann explains that the course is not about deflated footballs; “instead,” he says,  “it is about the interplay between those footballs — along with numerous other sports ‘things’ — and the legal, regulatory and journalistic systems governing sports.”

Margaret McCabe, an associate dean at UNH School of Law, came up with the idea, as a way to strengthen the law school’s connection to undergraduates on the Durham campus. As McCabe told the Chronicle of Higher Education, grabbing the attention of undergrads means working a little harder to make dry-sounding topics like antitrust law, labor law, and tort law seem more exciting.

MICHAEL MCCANN’s Greatest Hits

As a lawyer and a journalist, Michael McCann sets the pace when it comes to covering sports law. Since joining Sports Illustrated as a staff writer in 2007, McCann has covered dozens of cases, scandals and controversies and written hundreds of stories. Here are five of his favorites:

1  The Aaron Hernandez murder trial

McCann watched the former Patriots star’s 10-week trial for the murder of Odin Lloyd both in person and on video and wrote more than 40 stories about the case. “It was a very consuming and serious story to report on and analyze,” McCann says. Hernandez’s legal troubles aren’t over — he’s also been accused of murdering Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado outside a Boston night club in 2012. McCann will be covering that trial later this year.    

2  Donald Sterling and the Los Angeles Clippers

A tape of former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling making racist comments surfaced in April 2014 and the resulting fallout became the sports law story of the summer. McCann wrote 30 articles for Sports Illustrated on the Sterling case and broke news that Sterling had threatened to sue the NBA. “It was a fascinating story because it implicated so many different areas of law — contract law, freedom of speech, the rights of private associations to punish its members, and later, trust and estate law and mental competency law when Shelly Sterling became involved,” McCann says.

3  Ed O'Bannon v. NCAA

Should student athletes receive compensation when the NCAA uses their names, images, and likenesses on licensed products? That was the question at the heart of former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit against the College Athletics Association. The case began in 2009 and McCann followed it for five years, interviewing O’Bannon and NCAA officials and attending the trial in Oakland, Calif. in 2014. A judge found in O’Bannon’s favor, a decision McCann says had a profound impact on the NCAA. 

4  Lance Armstrong

 The superstar cyclist fell from grace in 2013 when he admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs throughout his career. After admitting to doping, Armstrong gave his first exclusive interview to Oprah Winfrey — and his second to McCann, who interviewed Armstrong at his Austin, Texas, home. The interview happened after McCann and Armstrong exchanged messages on Twitter, and the three-hour conversation yielded one of McCann’s most memorable and popular stories, “My Dance with Lance.”

5  Jameis Winston

Since 2012, sexual assault accusations have dogged Winston, the star quarterback for Florida State who led the team to a Heisman Trophy victory during his freshman year. College officials cleared Winston of the charges in 2014, but there’s been criticism that officials mishandled the investigation because of Winston’s star status. McCann covered the story closely, and in a 2014 article, he proposed that Winston should have dropped out of Florida State, an analysis that “attracted a good deal of attention, including a lot of hate mail,” McCann says. The allegations haven’t hurt Winston’s career prospects — he was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ first-round pick in the 2015 NFL draft.

Larry Clow ’12G is a freelance writer and editor based in Dover, N.H. He is the founding editor of The Sound, an independent news weekly covering Seacoast N.H.

Originally published in UNH MagazineSpring/Summer 2015 Issue

Bill Truslow | Communications and Public Affairs