The NCAA Committee on Infractions’ decision last month to slap the wrist of the University of Washington for recruiting and gambling violations will have a minimal effect on the program going forward.
However, it may have a far more lasting impact on the litigation involving the university and its former football coach, Rick Neuheisel. Neuheisel, who was fired after participating in an NCAA basketball tournament gambling pool and then allegedly lying about it, is claiming the university breached its contract.
Not long after the NCAA committee’s decision, attorneys for both sides were spinning the decision to their advantage. Attorneys for Neuheisel argued that the fact that the NCAA did not find their client guilty of NCAA violations weighed in their favor, while counsel for the university claimed that the association’s recognition that Neuheisel lied to investigators was meaningful.
Neuheisel’s attorney, Bob Sulkin for the Seattle firm of McNaul Ebel Nawrot Helgren & Vance, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that he and his client were “very happy that the NCAA found that he wasn’t responsible for any rules violations. The University of Washington’s effort to blame Rick for this was rejected by the NCAA. This was a huge, huge win for Rick Neuheisel, there is no other way to put it.”
Representing UW, attorney Lou Peterson of the Seattle firm Hillis Clark & Peterson claimed the NCAA’s decision has little to do with the litigation.
“The University of Washington’s termination of Rick Neuheisel’s employment was primarily for his acts of dishonesty, that is the lies he told to the public and to the university in 2003 about his job interview with the San Francisco 49ers, and his untruthfulness with NCAA investigators in June 2003,” Peterson said.
He further claimed that “(Neuheisel) was warned by both the athletic director and the university president in February 2003 that this type of conduct could not be repeated, and then when it was repeated, he was fired for it.”
Peterson claimed that the committee didn’t single out Neuheisel for additional penalties because the “university had already levied that penalty (firing him) as part of its response to the violations.
“The Pac-10 determined that termination of his employment was sufficient penalty, and the NCAA similarly has accepted the termination penalty and hasn’t imposed an additional penalty on him,” he told the newspaper.
One argument that Neuheisel will make when the case goes to trial on January 24 in King County Superior Court is that he “reasonably believed that NCAA rules permitted participation in March Madness collegiate basketball tournament pools or auctions with friends and neighbors outside the university’s department of intercollegiate athletics.” That contention is based on a memo from UW compliance officer Dana Richardson “expressly authorizing participation in such pools or auctions.”
UW law professor Rob Aronson, who is also named in the suit for his role as a former faculty athletics representative, told the Post-Intelligencer that he believed both sides will make liberal use of the NCAA ruling in court.
“I think everybody will use it because that’s the way lawyers are,” he said. “I’m sure Neuheisel’s attorneys will push the part where the NCAA indicates that the memo (from Richardson) was a mitigating factor and that he was entitled to rely on it. That’s what their case is built on. On the other hand, the university’s statement highlights the fact that they specifically indicated he wasn’t truthful.”
Neuheisel also named NCAA president Myles Brand and Bill Saum, the NCAA’s director of agents, gambling and amateur activities, in his suit as part of a conspiracy claim.