A college basketball coach ousted some 15 years ago for alleged transgressions cannot sustain a civil rights action against the NCAA, a federal judge has held in a long-running case replete with conspiracy theories and a mystique befitting March Madness.
Cohane v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, 04-cv-181, centers on a University at Buffalo coach who was pressured to resign in late 1999 when he was accused of watching potential recruits play pick-up ball in the college gym and other violations of NCAA rules.
Timothy Cohane has argued for a decade that his ouster resulted from a conspiracy between the university and athletic governing associations, including the NCAA and the Mid American Conference (MAC). He claimed that the school threatened to strip players of their eligibility or deny them a diploma unless they implicated him. In his lawsuit in the Western District, Cohane accused officials of bullying his players into signing false affidavits, altering testimony and concealing evidence (See Complaint).
Western District Chief Judge William Skretny (See Profile), in a decision Thursday, adopted nearly all of Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder’s (See Profile) recommendations from a report issued last summer. He said Cohane could not sustain a civil rights action against the NCAA because it is not a “state actor,” or an arm of the government.
Skretny also said Cohane got all the due process to which he was entitled. However, he rejected Schroeder’s reasoning that since Cohane was a well-known figure in Western New York he had a conduit to the media and public and could have held a press conference to refute the charges. That went to whether Cohane was denied an opportunity to publicly answer the charges.
“The court’s decision underscores the fairness of the NCAA’s infractions process and affirms the integrity and professionalism of the NCAA’s enforcement staff,” said NCAA Chief Legal Officer Donald Remy.
But the case, which in large measure questioned the autonomy of the collegiate athletic governing structure and its relationships with universities, has already been to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit once and is on its way back to Foley Square, according to Cohane’s attorney, Sean O’Leary of Brooklyn.
“This is just another step in the process,” O’Leary said. “[Cohane] is looking for justice—for himself, for his team.”
Remy said the NCAA is ” confident that the district court’s decision is correct and will be upheld.”
The key legal issue—a potential game changer in the NCAA’s responsibilities—is whether the organization, when working with a state school like the University at Buffalo, becomes a state actor. If so, athletes and coaches at state schools are entitled to greater due process than their counterparts at private institutions.
Skretny had initially held that under NCAA v. Tarkanian, 488 U.S. 179, a 1988 landmark case involving a legendary coach, Jerry “Tark the Shark” Tarkanian of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, the NCAA can never be a state actor. But the Second Circuit reversed him in 2007 and sent the case back.
In the second round, Schroeder and Skretny held that in this instance, the NCAA was not acting under color of state law. Therefore, Cohane was not entitled to any heightened level of due process. That issue will apparently be resolved by the Second Circuit.
The case has attracted considerable attention, largely because Cohane has never stopped fighting.
Cohane, a former basketball player on the U.S. Naval Academy team and recipient of the Purple Heart and two Bronze Star medals for his service in Vietnam, coached at Manhattanville, Dartmouth, West Point and Boston College before he was hired in 1993 as head coach at SUNY Buffalo. Over the objections of a new athletic director, who had clashed with Cohane over various issues and wanted him fired, the university extended Cohane’s contract through the 2002 season.
In 1999, however, University at Buffalo “self reported” violations to the MAC, an athletic conference within the NCAA, that led to Cohane’s departure. An investigation by MAC resulted in 18 allegations of misconduct, and Cohane resigned in late 1999 when the school bought out the remainder of his contract for $265,000.
After Cohane left, additional charges were brought against the University at Buffalo basketball program, alleging that scouting violations had occurred under Cohane’s watch. An NCAA investigation found Cohane “evasive, deceptive and simply not credible” and determined that he had engaged in unethical conduct.
The NCAA imposed sanctions that hindered Cohane’s ability to coach elsewhere.
But its appeals committee noted that the coach “has had a long career free of violations” and that the evidence against him was “sharply conflicting.” It reduced, but did not eliminate the penalty, and Cohane responded with a §1983 action filed in 2004.
The lawsuit alleges that the hearing was tainted by false and coerced testimony, and that university and MAC officials conspired with the NCAA to force him out of coaching.
Schroeder, in a 128-page report, dismissed the action against the NCAA, finding that it was not acting under color of state law and therefore whatever it did or didn’t do did not implicate Cohane’s due process rights.
Additionally, Schroeder found that since Cohane was a public figure with ready access to the media, he could not sustain his claim that the NCAA proceedings denied him an opportunity to refute the charges. Skretny generally adopted the report, with the exception of the portion dealing with Cohane’s status as a public figure.
“A plaintiff’s status as a public figure is a relevant factor in determining how much process is due,” Skretny wrote. “However, it is not alone determinative.”
William Odle of Spencer, Fane, Britt & Browne in Kansas City, Mo., represents the NCAA. Her deferred comment to the agency.
Cohane is a law professor and associate head coach at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.