A prominent sports and anti-trust attorney suggests that Robert Morris University may have violated Pennsylvania law in the elimination of its men’s and women’s hockey programs.
USCHO.com has obtained a copy of a letter to Robert Morris University president Dr. Chris Howard in which attorney Jeffrey L. Kessler wrote that “The University’s concealment of its plan to eliminate the men’s and women’s hockey teams is a fraudulent misrepresentation under Pennsylvania law.”
Kessler is representing a “coalition” of Robert Morris men’s and women’s hockey players in an effort to have the programs reinstated.
Kessler is a partner in the New York City law firm of Winston & Strawn and has represented clients in several high-profile cases, including as lead plaintiff in the recent unanimous Supreme Court of the United States decision that the NCAA was violating antitrust law by limiting the education-related benefits that schools can provide athletes.
Kessler also successfully represented Tom Brady in overturning the National Football League’s four-game “Deflategate” suspension of the then-New England Patriots quarterback. Kessler has represented players’ associations in several major professional sports.
In the letter – which was also copied to vice president and athletic director Chris King, the Robert Morris University board of trustees, and Renee T. Cavalovitch, RMU vice president and general counsel, among others – Kessler stated that his clients would rather avoid litigation and instead seek to put a plan in place to restore the programs.
“To that end, they invite the University to engage in immediate discussions with the coalition so that the parties can work together to resolve this matter amicably,” Kessler wrote.
The letter suggests that the decision to eliminate the programs, which was announced on May 26, 2021, had been in the works in secret, characterizing it as “a lengthy and covert process.”
“It appears that the University surreptitiously planned to cancel these programs for an extended period of time before revealing this plan to either the adversely impacted athletes or even all members of the Board of Trustees,” Kessler wrote.
“Indeed, the student-athletes and recruits were left entirely in the dark and were thus induced to rely upon the false representations of the University about the purportedly bright future of their varsity programs. This situation puts the University at risk of significant legal exposure unless the varsity status of the hockey teams is maintained.”
Kessler noted that the lack of transparency by Robert Morris University was detrimental to student-athletes who would otherwise have had other options.
“The concealment of the plans to eliminate the varsity hockey programs, even from Board members, was made by senior RMU leadership even though they knew that this information was highly material to the affected student-athletes’ academic, athletic, and financial decision-making processes — i.e., whether to enroll or remain at Robert Morris or to accept or seek admission to another university which would maintain its varsity hockey program,” Kessler wrote.
“When the University finally revealed the devastating news that it would be cancelling its varsity hockey programs, it did so at a time when it knew it would be too late for many of the affected student-athletes to transfer and continue their varsity athletic careers at another institution. This deliberate lack of transparency has caused the student-athletes substantial harm, which will be irreparable if the University does not reverse course and reinstate the teams.”
Kessler cites several instances in which players and recruits met with coaches on the men’s team in March and with women’s players a few days before the May announcement that the programs would be discontinued.
The letter states that while Robert Morris University agreed to continue providing scholarships for displaced student-athletes, the university pressured students to graduate early, “including by registering some of them for summer classes without their knowledge or consent.”
In another letter obtained by USCHO.com, an additional request for information has been submitted on behalf of a former player by an Ohio law firm, stating that the decision to drop hockey was “surreptitiously planned.”
The letter requests:
1. All correspondence with the NCAA regarding men’s and women’s ice hockey for the last two years;
2. All correspondence with the athletic department for the last two years;
3. All records regarding donations to any NCAA college sport team over the last five
4. All records and correspondence regarding the men’s track team for the last five years;
5. All cell phone records of Dr. Howard for the last two years;
6. All e-mails of Dr. Howard for the last two years;
7. Any and all social media accounts monitored and/or maintained by RMU relating to men’s and women’s hockey.
Jonathan Potts, vice president of public relations and marketing at Robert Morris University, responded to USCHO.com by email with a brief statement. “We have received the letter from Mr. Kessler, and it is under review.”