Northwestern, NCAA seek to dismiss basketball player's lawsuit over transfer rules
This could end up being a black mark on an otherwise storybook Northwestern season
Northwestern and the NCAA on Tuesday filed separate motions asking a federal judge to dismiss the class-action lawsuit by former Northwestern basketball player Johnnie Vassar, who is seeking to end NCAA transfer rules that require a player to sit out one year.
Vassar claimed in November that Northwestern coach Chris Collins and the university used intimidation tactics to force him out of his athletic scholarship. He also alleged the school falsified records and offered a "cash payment" in attempts to force him off his athletic scholarship so Northwestern could sign another player.
In filings Tuesday with the Northern District Court of Illinois, Northwestern largely avoided addressing the specific allegations at this time. Vassar is still at Northwestern with a full scholarship paid for from the university's general scholarship fund. He was a reserve player for one year in 2014-15.
The lawsuit argued that Northwestern committed fraud by breaching an obligation to provide Vassar a four-year athletic scholarship, including access to training, athletic facilities, early class registration, tutoring and summer school funding. Northwestern said besides that Vassar remains on a full scholarship, he hasn't sufficiently shown the university had a contractual obligation to provide any more.
Northwestern said Vassar's athletic scholarship contract wasn't even in effect at the time of the alleged breach, the alleged damages weren't part of a contract between the school and Vassar, and the benefits he seeks would be legally barred under Illinois law because they are not in writing.
Northwestern also asked a federal judge to remove allegations in Vassar's complaint that "improperly" disclose settlement talks between the parties. The lawsuit alleged that Northwestern offered a "cash payment" to "make Johnnie go away and free-up his scholarship."
"Thus, Northwestern's Deputy General Counsel, Priva Harjani, informally inquired into Johnnie's openness to considering a cash payment equivalent to the remaining value of his athletics scholarship," Vassar's lawsuit stated. "However, Johnnie rejected such a notion out of concern that such a payment would violate NCAA rules, end his ability to play NCAA basketball, and result in the loss of other valuable attributes of his athletics scholarship, such as access to academic support services for athletes."
In Tuesday's court filing, Northwestern described these and other settlement talks between Vassar's attorney and Northwestern's attorneys as "alleged communications." Northwestern said Vassar's inclusion of settlement talks tries to "prejudice" the university and "would seriously undermine the longstanding policy of promoting settlement discussions between parties in a dispute."
Vassar's dispute became connected to NCAA transfer rules because he said he was stuck by trying to play elsewhere. According to Vassar, other teams would only take him if he could play immediately but the NCAA told schools he needed to transfer first so the new university could apply for a waiver, which was unlikely to be granted.
Northwestern said Vassar and the coaching staff began talking about whether he should consider transferring after the 2014-15 season. Vassar has said Collins told him in February 2015 that he "sucked," had a bad attitude, and shouldn't expect to play anymore. Vassar claimed he and his mother received at least 16 phone calls and numerous text messages from coaches in March 2015 urging him to transfer.
Vassar announced on Twitter on March 30, 2015, that he would be transferring to another school. Vassar said in November he never chose to transfer since he wanted a Northwestern degree and felt he needed to respond publicly after the school put out a press release saying he elected to leave.
But Vassar never left, meaning his basketball scholarship also never got freed up for Northwestern.
The university said Vassar agreed to a non-participation agreement that he was not continuing as a basketball player and wouldn't be eligible for additional athletic benefits. Northwestern said Vassar's only specific allegation of lost benefits is he spent money for gym time and personal trainers and therapists that he would have had as a team member.
To fulfill the non-participation agreement, Northwestern said it assigned Vassar to the athletic facilities department. Vassar said he picked up trash, wiped bleachers, raked leaves and mowed lawns, among other duties.
"Unhappy with his assignment, Plaintiff 'repeatedly sought assistance' (i.e., complained) to various individuals at Northwestern, seeking to be reassigned," Northwestern wrote.
Vassar said Northwestern tried to remove him from the athletic scholarship by claiming he breached his contract by working fewer than the agreed-upon eight hours per week. Vassar claimed Northwestern submitted fraudulent time cards as its evidence. He included in the lawsuit time cards with somebody else's name crossed out on one and Vassar's first name misspelled on another.
Vassar appealed to Northwestern's Athletic Aid Appeals Committee and won. The committee wrote that Northwestern's athletic department "has not provided sufficient information for a removal of your athletics scholarships," and Vassar didn't come to Northwestern "with the expectation that you would be doing maintenance work."
The appeals committee removed Vassar from an athletic scholarship and provided him with the equivalent aid it says he would have received as an athlete. In Tuesday's filing, Northwestern said this allowed Vassar to continue to pursue his education "without having to perform work for the Athletics Department about which he previously had complained."
This also opened up Vassar's basketball scholarship for another player at Northwestern. The Wildcats are off to their best start ever in 2016-17, and as our Matt Norlander wrote, have become one of the best stories in college basketball while contending for the school's first NCAA Tournament appearance.
If Vassar's allegations of being run off are true, it raises the question of the value of multi-year scholarships for NCAA athletes. Until recent years, scholarships could only be provided on a one-year, renewable basis. Now many schools and conferences -- including the Big Ten -- have trumpeted how multi-year scholarships provide greater protection for players.
In a November interview with CBS Sports, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany acknowledged Vassar had made some "serious claims" and said the Big Ten would not be investigating them.
"He went to court so now it's in court and that's where it should be resolved," Delany said. "We wouldn't try to jump in over what a plaintiff and a defendant are doing. If he came to us and said, 'I wasn't dealt with fairly,' we'd probably ask the school what's going on. But we don't really have -- as most conferences don't -- what I would describe as enforcement. We don't try to adjudicate that. But if somebody brought that to our attention, not in a legal environment, but just said, 'Hey, we want to be dealt with fairly,' we'd raise the issues."
The NCAA has not commented about Vassar's specific allegations, some of which potentially could be NCAA violations. In a separate filing Tuesday from Northwestern, the NCAA asked for a partial dismissal of the complaint related to NCAA transfer rules.
Lawyers for Vassar argue that sitting out a year when transferring violates antitrust law. The NCAA said the rule is legal because it's procompetitive, noncommercial and Vassar has not sufficiently alleged an anticompetitive effect. The NCAA noted that the Southern District of Indiana recently dismissed a "nearly identical" case over transfer rules.
Without rules requiring a transfer to sit out one year, "a student-athlete might start the year playing for one school and end the year playing for its rival," the NCAA wrote. "Such frequent and unpredictable movement of athletes might be acceptable to fans of professional sports, but it would completely divorce the athletic and academic experience for NCAA student-athletes and destroy the 'product' of college sports."
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