Basketball player sues Northwestern, NCAA after long battle over his scholarship
Johnnie Vassar claims school didn't honor scholarship, and transfer rules prevented a move
A former Northwestern basketball player, locked in a lengthy dispute over claims coach Chris Collins and the university used intimidation tactics to force him out of his athletic scholarship, sued the NCAA and Northwestern on Monday over the association's transfer rules.
Johnnie Vassar, a Northwestern junior who hasn't been on the team since 2014-15, said the school falsified timecards from his internship program to try to force him off his scholarship. Vassar said Northwestern also pressured him to sign a voluntary withdrawal form confirming he was quitting, but he refused because he didn't want to leave.
The class-action lawsuit filed in Illinois takes aim at NCAA transfer rules, which require a player to sit out a year. Vassar's attorneys, the Seattle-based law firm Hagens Berman, previously sued the NCAA last March over transfer rules on behalf of a Northern Iowa football player.
In this case, Vassar said DePaul, Georgia Tech, Utah and UNLV offered to take him as a transfer in the spring of 2015 if he could get an NCAA waiver to play immediately. Vassar's mother, Cherise, said several discussions took place with the NCAA, which maintained it was not granting hardship waivers allowing transfers to play immediately.
Instead for nearly two years, Vassar has quietly fought Northwestern over his scholarship status. CBS Sports interviews with Vassar and his mother, along with a review of the lawsuit, paint a picture of Northwestern wanting Vassar off the team to free up a scholarship. Northwestern is the same school where football players unsuccessfully tried to form a union.
"I think the transfer rules should be changed, but that's not really where our main focus is," Vassar said Monday. "It's really trying to make clear you shouldn't walk over people. I told Coach Collins, 'I don't want to leave,' and they went on and on trying to get me to leave. I'm a strong believer in principle, and I feel like if you allow someone to walk over you, that becomes a repetitive cycle. I feel like that could happen to other kids around the country, but no one is speaking about it."
In an email statement, Northwestern spokesman Alan Cubbage wrote, "We do not believe this claim has any legal merit. We will defend the University vigorously."
According to 'Inside NU,' Collins was asked about the lawsuit Monday night after Northwestern's game and told the media, "We'll let those things be handled behind closed doors."
Vassar signed with Northwestern in April 2014 on a multiyear scholarship through 2017-18, according to the lawsuit. He played sparingly in 18 games as a freshman in 2014-15.
On March 30, 2015, Northwestern announced Vassar had decided to transfer. "Johnnie let us know that he has chosen to pursue another university to continue his career," Collins said in a statement at the time. "We support his decision and enjoyed having him as a member of the program this season. He is a talented player with a bright future and we wish him nothing but the best in everything he does going forward."
Vassar posted on Twitter that day, "I've loved my time at Northwestern University but have arrived at the very difficult point of transferring. This was incredibly challenging to announce since I will miss my team, our coaching staff, and the stellar academics NU offers." He also thanked Collins and the coaches for the opportunity.
In reality, Vassar said Monday, he never chose to transfer because he wanted a Northwestern degree and was pressured for months to free up a scholarship for a recruit. Vassar said he posted his departure on Twitter because he felt he needed to respond after the press release, so he carefully crafted his words to avoid saying he decided to transfer.
According to the complaint, Collins told Vassar in February 2015 that he "sucked," had a bad attitude and shouldn't expect to play anymore. Vassar said multiple teammates told him the coaches called a secret meeting without him to inquire if Vassar had a bad attitude and should be kicked off the team.
"Even though deep down inside I didn't like not playing, I couldn't give in to what they wanted," Vassar said. "So I sat on the bench and I cheered."
The suit claimed Vassar and his mother received at least 16 phone calls and numerous text messages from Northwestern coaches in March 2015 urging him to transfer. Cherise said she told Northwestern assistant Armon Gates, "You said he has the option to stay and he's going to stay, but you keep calling. It's almost like you're forcing him out.' He said, 'Coach wouldn't say it, but I'm saying we are.' ... I said, 'I won't be involved in matters on the court, but now you're dealing with his education and that's where I come in now.' We're big on education in our family. Johnnie has always been talented and he's been trying to prove to people his whole life he's not just a basketball jock."
Cherise encouraged her son not to leave Northwestern without getting a clear commitment from another school. But she said they ran into a "catch-22" problem: Other schools would only take Vassar if he could play immediately and the NCAA told them he needed to transfer first so the new university could apply for the waiver, which was unlikely to be granted anyway.
Vassar said Northwestern coaches repeatedly urged him to pick up a "permission to contact" form that would allow other schools to contact him. When Vassar agreed to pick up the form, "Northwestern used that as an opportunity to remove him from the team and effectively released Johnnie," the lawsuit stated.
Vassar said he was harassed to sign a blank roster deletion form, accompanied by a handwritten Post-It note from director of player development Ryan Humphrey. "Sign this paper. You can still work out and play pickup with the guys. I told you before I am still here for you," the note said, according to the lawsuit.
"I'm not going to sign a blank document that says, 'Sign it Johnnie,' on a sticky note," Vassar said.
On July 1, 2015, Northwestern gave permission for schools to contact Vassar about a transfer anywhere except in the Big Ten, according to the complaint. Vassar signed a document regarding "non-participant scholarship status" that set out his obligations to maintain his athletic scholarship while not playing on the team, including an eight-hour-per week service requirement in the athletics department.
Keeping Vassar on athletic aid meant he still counted against Northwestern's maximum number of allowable scholarships. Vassar said Northwestern increased its efforts to run him off by turning his internship with the Wildcat Internship Program into custodial work.
"I wiped off the bleachers at the tennis courts," Vassar said. "I picked up trash. I blew leaves. I raked the leaves. I carried metal poles. I put salt on the trees. I mowed the lawns. I set up the basketball courts. ... At first it was terrible, but I had to swallow my pride and I didn't want to lose my scholarship and give them what they want. Just suck it up and get it done. It was a little difficult because you see your friends walking around and they're like, 'If we drop a cup, you've got to pick it up?' "
When Vassar had still not transferred, Northwestern cancelled Vassar's athletic scholarship on April 20, 2016. The cancellation was "a result of [Vassar's] noncompliance with the terms outlined in the nonparticipation agreement," according to a Northwestern letter cited in the lawsuit.
Northwestern agreed to provide a scholarship and his full cost of attendance for 2016-17 and 2017-18 if he stayed enrolled and in good standing. The university also offered Vassar a "private settlement agreement," with confidentiality clauses if he would leave his athletic scholarship, the lawsuit said. Vassar had no interest in keeping quiet.
Why was Vassar's athletic scholarship revoked? The lawsuit quoted a letter purportedly from Northwestern's deputy general counsel that said Vassar breached his July 2015 "contract" because he worked fewer than 8 hours per week and submitted fraudulent timecards to the athletic department.
Vassar appealed the decision to Northwestern's Athletic Aid Appeals Committee. At the hearing, Northwestern submitted what it claimed to be Vassar's fake timecards, even though somebody else's name was crossed out on one timecard and Vassar's first name was misspelled on another. The lawsuit showed copies of the timecards, including one that misspelled the player's name as "Johnie."
"One timecard said he worked on March 26, but we showed credit card payments that he made purchases in California that day while there for his father's funeral," Cherise said. "They knew then they had no case."
Vassar won his appeal on May 4, 2016. The appeals committee wrote that Northwestern's athletic department "has not provided sufficient information for a removal of your athletics scholarship," and Vassar didn't come to Northwestern "with the expectation that you would be doing maintenance work."
Nevertheless, the appeals committee removed Vassar's athletic scholarship and instead provided him "the equivalent scholarship from the general Northwestern Scholarship amount in the same amount as you would have received as a student athlete." In other words, in the eyes of Vassar and his mother, Northwestern finally had found a way to free up his athletic scholarship for another player.
However, the lawsuit claimed Vassar's athletic scholarship was more valuable than the academic scholarship. Athletic aid also provided summer school, offered early registration for classes, athletic training, medical care, academic advising and tutoring.
Today, Vassar is still a student at Northwestern, where he's a communications major. He wants it known he's still pursuing his dream to play basketball and works out regularly.
"I'll graduate from Northwestern because I probably won't get an opportunity to play at another school," said Vassar, who said he thinks he would have two years of NCAA eligibility left. "If one comes up, I'll probably take it. But it has to be parallel academically as well as athletically."
Cherise said the NCAA, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment, told her it's never been in a situation quite like this with an athlete in such limbo.
"They don't have rules to cover four-year, multiyear scholarships," Cherise said. "There's a lot of things they need to protect the players as well. If we didn't have all this documentation, nobody would believe this."
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