All Rise

Athletes as clients: Take a look inside the wide world of sports law

By Kelsey GivensThe Ohio State University Law School Magazine | winter 2016


The glitz. The glamour. The excitement. Brushing elbows with the athletic elite and sharing in a fast-paced, extravagant lifestyle—all while negotiating multi-million dollar contracts.

Perhaps that’s how sports law is portrayed on television and in the movies. But those in the industry today say there is so much more to a career working with athletes than simply reading over their contracts and sharing in their success.

The ultimate agent

“We’re involved in all aspects of their career— contracts, endorsements, and marketing –whatever they need. There is no typical day,” said nationally renowned sports agent and founder of NC Sports Neil Cornrich ’83. “I work with, objectively and quantifiably, the best and brightest in the world at what they do. There are so few positions, and they’re so good—the best in the world. I think it’s difficult for most people to understand.”

Breaking into the industry is challenging. Building trust with the players, creating a name for yourself, and succeeding in a market teeming with a multitude of variables out of both the player and agent’s control, like career-ending injuries, can make it difficult to start a business from the ground up.

Cornrich considers himself lucky. When he decided to become a sports agent, he was able to support himself by working at his father, Sidney Cornrich ’51’s firm in Cleveland as he built his practice. Friendships he started while in law school also helped, particularly that of Larry Romanoff, current director of external affairs for Ohio State.

“Larry’s insights had a profound effect on my understanding of student-athletes and played an integral role in the genesis of my career,” he said. It also helped Cornrich land a top pick from The Ohio State University football program, who went on to have an immensely successful career in the NFL, as his first client.

“I was lucky that Kirk Lowdermilk chose me to represent him. Fortunately things went well from the beginning contractually and he had the right things going for him; he was a tough, bright, durable player—in the sense that he could survive this brutal game—and having a player like that teaches you a lot about the game. He was then nice enough to start recommending me to other players like Jeff Uhlenhake, who was a team captain and All-America at Ohio State. Jeff was the first rookie to start at center in Miami Dolphin history and is currently working for the Ohio State football program as a strength and conditioning coach. One led to another, from Jeff to Joe Staysniak and, that same year, Jeff Davidson, who were both team captains and Academic All-Big Ten,” Cornrich explained.

Although he didn’t picture himself becoming an agent when he first entered law school, Cornrich said he became fascinated by contract work in his first-year course on the subject, taught by Professor Jerome Reichman, as well as classes on federal income taxation and legal problems of financial information with Professor Morgan Shipman. That appreciation for contract execution—which is a large part of what Cornrich does as an agent—as well as a an independent project he completed with Professor Stan Laughlin ’60, which allowed him to study lawyers’ roles within sports, started him on the path to where he is today.

He now represents a number of highly successful professional-level and college-level coaches, general managers, and club presidents. Names like Bill Belichick, Ted Ginn Jr., Montee Ball, Robert Smith, Glen Mason, John Cooper, Luke Fickell, and more recently first-round NFL draft pick and Outland Trophy winner Brandon Scherff, have all called on Cornrich and his team for their expertise.

Through it all, Cornrich said, the most important thing has been to continue working with the client to do things the right way and to do what’s in their best interest.

“I realize every day that the coaches, general managers, and players for whom I work are trying to improve their teams, and that can include their own personal representation. I understand the need to keep improving my own work and earn the respect of my clients on a daily basis. It’s nice that I’ve had good results in the past, but what’s important is continually getting good results for my current clients.”

And that philosophy has proven successful for both Cornrich and his clients. His impressive career was recognized by Sports Illustrated as one of the “15 Most Influential Sports Agents,” in 2013. “It’s obviously flattering, but I just feel very fortunate and humbled and lucky,” he said.

Creating opportunity

When David Lisko ’11 entered law school, pursuing a career in sports was the farthest thing from his mind.

A once successful football and lacrosse player for Ohio State, a torn ACL his junior year derailed his hopes of turning pro after graduation. Realizing he needed to rethink his future career plans, the political science major decided to apply to law school, something he says seemed like a natural fit for his background and interests, and to leave the world of sports behind.

“I was kind of done with sports. I thought it had run its course and I wanted to go in a totally different direction. I was really involved with politics while in law school. I didn’t even watch sports that much – I was really just done with it,” he said.

But, during his second semester at Moritz, Lisko was introduced to Columbus Blue Jackets Senior Vice President and General Counsel Greg Kirstein through the mock interview program, which reignited his interest in athletics.

“I took the meeting very seriously. I studied and spent a lot of time preparing for it and we had a tremendous conversation, which led to a job offer to work for the Blue Jackets my second year in law school,” he said. “I realized I wanted to be a lawyer, but I also wanted sports to be a part of my life for the rest of my life.”

Kirstein began mentoring the aspiring attorney, and eventually introduced him to John Higgins, the general counsel for the Tampa Bay Rays, who in turn introduced Lisko to the sports scene in Florida. That mentorship and those introductions helped Lisko get his foot in the door at Holland & Knight, where he started as an associate, and later a certified NFL agent.

“It’s hard when you’re starting out; there are a lot of roadblocks in your way. A lot of agents who become certified never sign a single player to an NFL roster. Things kind of snowball once you get your foot in the door, but right out of the gate, it’s hard to maneuver—you have to register in different states, which is expensive, you have to scout players and work with the universities,” he said.

As an agent, he said it’s his responsibility not only to read through his clients’ contracts, but also to promote them to the right teams.

“We do everything from research on prospective teams to creating highlight reels and beyond. It’s my job to present my clients in the best possible light to the teams,” he said.

As his clientele base has grown, Lisko said he’s realized his clients need more than just an agent. They need someone who can represent them in a variety of other legal matters over the course of their career.

Although he has only been out of law school a few years, Lisko said already sees how rewarding a career in sports can be. He now shares that passion with others through Sports Business and Leadership Association, Inc., a nonprofit organization he helped form to educate legal professionals on trending sports-related business issues and concerns.

“I wanted to become an agent to help guys like me—bubble people who could succeed with the right help,” he said.

Developing a niche

A certified players’ agent is oftentimes much more than just an athlete’s representative, said NHLPA Player Representative and immigration attorney Kenneth J. Robinson ’98.

“A lawyer is sometimes a social worker, sometimes a priest, sometimes a psychologist. And while you don’t learn how to do that in law school, you do gain the tools to analyze those issues and the various pros and cons to try to determine what the best course is,” he said. “Some players like to talk to their agents or advisors after every game. It may be 10 p.m. where they are and 1 a.m. where you are and you’re just sitting there talking about hockey, their struggles, calls that were made, and helping them debrief. Other players don’t need that. Players use their agents differently, some much more heavily, and that’s great; we want them to be our friends and to tell us about their troubles so we can try and resolve them and be there for them.”

Trust between the agent and athlete is paramount to a successful relationship, Robinson explained. That skill of listening carefully to his clients and working to build strong relationships with them is what actually led him down the path to becoming an NHL agent.

When asked if he ever imagined himself working with professional athletes when he was just starting out, he smiled as he said, “Absolutely not.”

When Robinson entered law school he was interested in pursuing international law. Through an opportunity to work with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, however, he quickly discovered a new area of practice that seemed to better fit his interests—immigration law.

“I was always very entrepreneurial and immigrants are the most entrepreneurial of people—they have to be. So when I got back to law school I applied for, and received, a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowship that sent me back to Europe to study business.”

After graduation, Robinson went to work for a small firm before joining Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease’s corporate law department, where his practice focused on employment-based immigration. Not long after that he met his current business partner, Donald C. Slowik, and they formed the firm of Slowik & Robinson, LLC, which focuses on immigration law.

Robinson said it was through that work that he slowly began representing players and other employees of the NHL as they turned to him for help with the immigration issues they faced moving to the U.S.

The more he worked with those clients, the more and more they came back to him for other legal work, until one day a player simply asked him, “Have you thought about becoming an agent?”

“I knew nothing about the sport of hockey. I liked it and I had been to some games, but I had never studied the sport, I had never studied the business model, and I knew nothing about their collective bargaining agreement, other than the fact they had one,” he said. “I literally purchased Hockey for Dummies. I took a summer and read everything I could get my hands on regarding how to represent professional athletes, about the sport of hockey, their development structure from youth to the professional ranks, and about the NCAA’s regulations and eligibility requirements. Through that I realized very quickly there was no way I could do this on my own. I joined with Edge Sports Management, a hockey-specific agency out of New York.”

The arrangement provided Robinson with the opportunity to learn about the business environment, the relationship between general managers and coaches, and typical problems and issues that arise for professional athletes, he said.

He also found a strong connection between the legal work he had been doing and the work he was being asked to do for his new set of clientele, giving him confidence in his abilities to represent them.

“Seventy percent of the NHL is populated by foreign-born athletes. There is really a nexus between my legal work and my hockey work. When representing players on immigration issues, I advocate for my client before the government— explaining why they are aliens of extraordinary ability, why they’ve risen to the very top of their field and merit a green card based upon their talents. To do that, I have to be able to analyze their career statistics, I have to essentially create comparables with other athletes and demonstrate why they are better, which is exactly the kind of work you do as an agent when you’re talking to a general manager during contract negotiations. In fact, I think its excellent training,” he said.

And, he isn’t just representing players at the top of their game. Robinson’s practice spans from junior hockey team members attempting to carve a path to professional level to players considering retirement.

“The first local kid I worked with, Jack Roslovic, went through the development ranks here and played for the U.S. National Training Development Team in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He was just drafted this past June, and not only is he Central Ohio’s first draft pick ever born and raised here, but he was also the 25th overall pick and went to the Winnipeg Jets,” he said. “I’m now also working with players considering retirement, who may be looking for one last contract, or if that doesn’t work out, looking to begin the transition to a regular life for he and his family. What we try to do before that point is put together a pretty aggressive savings schedule, working with financial advisors, to put money away for them, and make sure there is enough to take care of them after hockey. That’s hard to do with 20-somethings who are running around with millions of dollars and believe that it’s going to last forever. It takes trust between the player and the agent to really understand and believe the agent when the agent says this isn’t going to last forever.”

Dollars and sense

Protecting athletes from misguided investments and ensuring they are well taken care of after the game is just part of the practice of Jeff Kominsky ’08, an associate at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Kominsky serves as counsel to current athletes, retired athletes, and team executives on a variety of issues, including contract disputes.

“My practice includes commercial litigation. For example, I try to help an athlete understand why his or her investment opportunity went south, which is a hot issue in the sports law community right now,” he explained. “Sometimes an athlete just makes a bad investment; but sometimes an athlete simply relies too much on others who fraudulently portray themselves as loyal. An athlete needs to be educated and informed on all the issues, regardless of who is giving them that advice.”

Kominsky caters his practice to sports clients in other ways too, including the defense of breaches of contract, medical malpractice claims, and other legal matters that may require the assistance of outside counsel by a sports executive or team.

One of the hardest aspects of his job is building enough trust to effectively help his clients with their legal needs, especially if they have been burned by bad or misguided investments on the advice of others in the past.

“I’m working with athletes or executives that get approached frequently, sometimes multiple times a day, and it’s really tough to establish that relationship. The toughest challenge is demonstrating to that athlete that they can trust some people but not others. For any person that’s tough to demonstrate in the blink of an eye. Sometimes it takes time to develop that trust and that bond between athlete and attorney,” he said.

Part of what has helped him build his client base and get to where he is in his career today, he said, is sheer perseverance and networking with the right people.

“When I was a 3L, I applied to a myriad of sports jobs, including a position as associate general counsel of the Cleveland Cavaliers. I was turned down. Without fear, I reached out to the Cavaliers’ general counsel, Jason Hillman. I said, ‘Hey Jason, you already turned me down for a job. Can you at least come speak at Ohio State for a sports law forum that I’m organizing?’ Jason agreed and spoke on a panel at the Barrister Club. Afterward, he told me that he appreciated my persistence and recommended that I travel to a Sports Lawyers Association conference in San Francisco. At that conference, he personally introduced me to every general counsel we could find throughout the three-day event. That was how I started to generate a national network of in-house counsel,” Kominsky said.

The compliance expert

And then there are those attorneys, like Carly Grimshaw ’10, who are tasked with guiding young student-athletes through complicated NCAA rules and regulations as they compete with the hopes of one day making it to the professional level.

Walking into The Ohio State University Athletic Compliance office, the plain walls and matching cubicles disguise the highly important work going on. The employees there are responsible for keeping the university’s 36 varsity teams—one of the largest, and most successful, college athletic departments in the nation—compliant with NCAA, Big Ten, and university rules and regulations.

“We have a compliance pyramid, and the base of the pyramid is education. We try to provide a comprehensive education program based on all of the compliance rules. The second tier of the pyramid is monitoring. We monitor adherence to NCAA, Big Ten and institutional rules and we are responsible for monitoring adherence by coaches, staff, student-athletes, and boosters. And then the very top tier of the pyramid is enforcement. That’s the smallest portion of our job, because if we’ve done a really good job educating, hopefully we don’t have to do a lot of enforcement. But if we have to then we enforce the rules and prescribe penalties for violations,” Grimshaw explained.

And Grimshaw understands how complicated competing under multiple division regulations can be for a student-athlete. She herself was a studentathlete for Ohio State at one time. Grimshaw spent four years competing on the varsity women’s synchronized swimming team. She said she worked closely with the university compliance office during that time, especially as she was flying back and forth from England while competing for a spot in the 2004 Olympic Games.

“I think I understand the competitive need, while balancing out compliance issues. I understand the desire to kind of push into the gray and to push that boundary while staying within the confines of the rules. So I want to make sure that I’m allowing my coaches to be competitive while not breaking any NCAA rules. A lot of times here we say, ‘You may not be able to do it exactly this way, but what’s your desired outcome? Let’s try to find a way you can get there permissibly.’ And we try to get creative,” she said.

Working in compliance is much like working in a traditional firm setting, said Grimshaw. Every day she uses the legal research and writing skills she learned in law school to help student-athletes, coaches, and staff navigate the complex rules and regulations governing their respective sports.

“A lot of the time I’m pretty much answering questions from the time I get in until the time I leave. They’re interruptive questions—a coach will email or call me and say ‘Hey this is what I want to do, can I do this?’ Sometimes it’s very straight forward, straight out of the book, and sometimes it’s not and you have to do a little bit of research. It’s very similar to legal research. We have bylaws with case precedent attached to those bylaws. We look at the case precedent and try to use it to our advantage; which sometimes means arguing against it,” she said.

And, much like the law, those bylaws are constantly changing. One of the largest recent changes to the NCAA rules structure involves giving the top five power conferences, including the Big Ten, more autonomy over their own legislation.

“We’re in a unique situation trying to feel out how this is going to go and looking down the road at what legislation can be changed and what cannot be changed. But, legislatively, it’s a very different path we’re going down than it has been before,” Grimshaw explained.

Mixing sports and law

Whether these lawyers are connecting clients with potential employers, helping them navigate the complex world of college athletics, or helping them right misguided investment opportunities, they all have one thing in common—the love of athletics. “It’s great to talk about sports at work. However, sports law is a misnomer. Most often, sports law is just the combination of legal issues and sports facts. To say that you want to learn or study ‘sports law’ is not saying much. You first have to learn a certain area of law, get really good at it, and then demonstrate your legal abilities so you can obtain work with sports-related clients,” Kominsky said.