Ruling Highlights Difficulty Student-Athletes Have when It Comes to Cashing in on a Promise of a College or University

Mar 25, 2022

By Loren Galloway, Assistant Coordinator at the University of Texas

Student-athletes and student managers at the University of Hartford sued their school over its decision to transition from NCAA Division I to Division III, alleging various claims of fraud, misrepresentation, and breach of contract as well as seeking an injunction to prevent Hartford from moving to Division III.

According to the plaintiffs, Hartford’s president, Gregory Woodward, began looking at ways to change the university’s athletics programs even before taking the helm in July 2017, allegedly sending an email to the school’s men’s basketball head coach in May 2017 in which Woodward criticized the performance of Hartford’s athletics programs and stated his intention to “rethink” the operations of the athletics department. In 2019, Woodward launched a task force charged with examining the practicality of Hartford remaining in Division I and the American East Conference, both of which the university had been a member since the mid-1980s. The group was specifically asked to look at a way to reduce Hartford’s costs. Although the task force’s final report was never publicly released, Woodward told Hartford’s faculty senate in April 2020 that transitioning to Division III would likely not lead to cost reductions.

Hartford also hired an outside consulting firm to review the athletics programs and make recommendations on how the university could continue to sponsor its 17 sport programs, while reducing funding for the athletics department. In a study submitted to Woodward in February 2021, the firm concluded that it was not “realistic” or “sustainable” for Hartford to remain in Division I and recommended that the university consider transitioning to Division III. The plaintiffs, however, allege that the study was flawed because it did not factor in the costs of transitioning to Division III and overestimated the costs of remaining in Division I. The plaintiffs also allege that Woodward knew the study had errors, but still recommended that Hartford’s Board of Regents vote to move to Division III. In May 2021, the Board voted to move from Division I to Division III, after which the AEC voted to expel Hartford from the conference after the 2021-22 academic year.

The Board’s vote means that Hartford will apply for Division III membership. The Division III Membership Committee is required to approve applicants who meet Division III’s requirements for provisional applicants, which Hartford does. The Board’s vote, therefore, effectively ensured that Hartford would become a reclassifying member of Division III in the academic year following its application. After three years as a reclassifying member, Harford would become eligible for active Division III membership.

However, the effects of the transition to Division III start as soon as a school becomes a reclassifying member. In the first year of the three-year reclassification period, Hartford would no longer be allowed to award athletics scholarships to incoming student-athletes. In the second year, Hartford would not be allowed to compete in NCAA championships, and in the third year, Hartford would no longer be allowed to provide athletics scholarships to any student-athletes, except for student-athletes who had previously received athletics aid and were no longer participating in athletics.

The defendants moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the plaintiffs lacked Article III standing and had failed to state a claim. On the former, the judge disagreed. Article III standing, put simply, requires that the plaintiff have some sort of personal stake in the outcome of the case. A plaintiff can establish Article III standing by showing that he or she has suffered an injury in fact, that the defendant caused the injury, and that a ruling in the plaintiff’s favor would redress the injury. The defendants argued that the plaintiffs had not been harmed by Hartford’s decision to transition to Division III, specifically because, by the time Hartford became an active Division III member in 2025, all plaintiffs would have had the opportunity to play on or manage a Division I team for four years. However, the judge noted that the plaintiff’s ability to compete in AEC and NCAA championships and to receive athletics scholarships would be impacted prior to 2025. Because those impacts would be caused by the university’s decision to transition to Division III, and because an injunction preventing the transition would redress the injury, the court found that the plaintiffs had established Article III standing.

On the issue of failure to state a claim, however, the plaintiffs found less success. When reviewing a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, the court considers whether the plaintiff’s allegations, if assumed to be true, would give rise to a legal claim. The plaintiffs’ first claim was fraud, which requires the plaintiff to show that the defendant knowingly made an untrue statement of fact in order to induce the plaintiff to act and that the plaintiff suffered harm by relying upon the untrue statement. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure additionally require that the plaintiff specifically identify the fraudulent statements, when and where those statements were made, and by whom the statements were made. The defendants argued that the plaintiffs failed to state a claim of fraud because they did not allege any false statement of facts and did not allege that the speakers knew that any statements were false.

The student-athlete plaintiffs alleged that the coaches who recruited them to Hartford had told them that it would be a four-year commitment and did not tell them that Hartford might transition to Division III. However, the court found that the plaintiffs’ allegations were too general to state a claim of fraud because they did not identify the speakers or when or where the statements were made and because the statement that being a student-athlete at Hartford was a four-year commitment was not untrue—the plaintiffs did not allege that they were promised a four-year Division I experience, nor that Hartford would eliminate any of their sports. Additionally, the plaintiffs did not allege that the Hartford coaches knew or could have known at the time that any statement they were making was untrue, since they were not aware of Woodward’s intent to persuade the Board of Regents to vote to transition to Division III.

This same reasoning led the court to dismiss all claims of negligent misrepresentation, as well, except for that brought by Malcolm Bell, a student-athlete on Hartford men’s lacrosse team. Bell alleged that, during his recruitment, the coaches told him that during his four years at Hartford, he would be “held to the expectations of a Division I athlete.” Viewing this allegation in the light most favorable to Bell, the court found that this statement could reasonably be construed as an assurance that Hartford would remain a Division I school. Although there was no allegation that the representation made to Bell was untrue, the court found that the allegation that the defendants should have known the statement was untrue was sufficient to survive the motion to dismiss because Woodward had already expressed his desire to transition to Division III when Bell was being recruited. “In other words,” the opinion stated, “it was arguably negligent for the University—aware of its new President’s intentions—to continue to allow coaching staff to make recruiting pitches to prospective student-athletes that suggested that the University would remain in Division I.” The court emphasized, however, that the ruling on Bell’s negligent misrepresentation claim was “a close call.”

The plaintiffs also claimed that the defendants had committed fraud by nondisclosure, which occurs when the defendant has a duty to disclose known facts and fails to do so. Such a duty can arise from a statute or regulation, a voluntary disclosure (which under common law requires the speaker to make a full and fair disclosure), or a special relationship between the parties. The court found that the plaintiffs had failed to allege any duty on the part of the defendants that would have given rise to a claim of fraud by nondisclosure. Similarly, the court found that the plaintiffs had failed to establish that there was any special relationship between the students and the university that would support a claim of constructive fraud.

The court also declined to rule that innocent misrepresentation—a tort which occurs in commercial transactions when an untrue representation is made to induce the plaintiff to purchase something but does not require knowledge on the part of the defendant that the representation is untrue—does not apply to the relationship between a student and a university because such a relationship is not considered a commercial exchange.

In addition to the fraud and misrepresentation claims, the defendants moved to dismiss the contract claims brought by the plaintiffs, the first of which alleged that the student-athletes and managers had a contract implied in fact with Hartford which required the university to remain in Division I while the plaintiffs were enrolled. A contract implied in fact arises when, through their conduct, the parties assent to a contractual agreement. However, to claim a breach of an implied in fact contract, a plaintiff must still show that the defendant failed to hold up their end of the agreement. The court found that this was not the case for all plaintiffs except Bell, using largely the same reasoning as in the analysis of the claim of fraud and negligent misrepresentation: The other plaintiffs allege they were promised four-years in their sport but did not allege they were specifically promised those four years would be in Division I. In Bell’s case, however, the statement that he would be held to the standards of a Division I athlete, which could reasonably be inferred to be a promise that Hartford would be a Division I school while Bell was there.

With Bell’s negligent misrepresentation and breach of contract claims being the only ones to survive the motion to dismiss, the court then considered the plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction to prevent Hartford from reclassifying to Division III. A preliminary injunction may be granted when the party seeking the injunction shows irreparable harm and demonstrates either a likelihood of success on the merits or sufficiently serious questions on the merits with a balance of hardships favoring the party moving for the injunction. The court found that Bell’s loss of opportunity to play lacrosse in Division I constituted irreparable harm but did not find that Bell had demonstrated a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits.

Additionally, the court found that the balance of hardships did not favor the plaintiffs. Were the injunction denied, Bell would still be free to transfer to another Division I school to play lacrosse. Were the injunction granted, however, there would be significant financial impacts on the university, and Hartford would be prevented from implementing a plan which it had determined would benefit the larger student body and institution as a whole. The court, therefore, denied the plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction.

This case illustrates the deference given to schools to decide how to manage their own enterprises, as well as the risks student-athletes face when relying on recruiting pitches to make decisions about where to go to college. As the ruling on the motion to dismiss shows, it can be tremendously difficult for a student-athlete to show that he or she was promised something by a college or university in a way that meets the legal thresholds for relief. This is not only because a student-athlete is usually still a teenager (and therefore probably not a sophisticated contract negotiator) when engaging in these recruiting conversations but also because the bureaucratic structures of college and universities make it unlikely that a coach will know for sure what decisions the governing actors will make during the course of the student-athlete’s college career that might impact the coach’s ability to deliver on the promises made during recruitment. The takeaway for college and university administrators here might be that those bureaucratic structures are working inasmuch as they seem to limit this sort of liability.

And the takeaway for prospective student-athletes? Always get it in writing.