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November 27, 2014

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OTHER VOICES:

The college coach who fought back

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In 1966, Beryl Shipley, the basketball coach at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, recruited three blacks to play for the Ragin’ Cajuns. Although the school, now known as the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, had accepted black students since the mid-1950s, its teams remained segregated — as did every college athletic team in the state.

Louisiana’s Board of Education quickly moved to stop Shipley. First, it demanded that Shipley hold practice a week earlier than NCAA rules allowed. Then, according to “Slam Dunked,” a book Shipley wrote with Ron Gomez, the board told the school that athletic scholarships could be granted only to whites. Rather than cut his players loose, Shipley funded the scholarships with money raised from local boosters.

The Board of Education reacted by informing the NCAA that Shipley and the university were in violation of NCAA rules.

An organization with a moral compass would have refused to allow itself to be a pawn in a segregationist effort to preserve an all-white team. But the NCAA has never had a moral compass. So instead, it assigned a new hire, Warren Brown, to investigate, and, in 1968, it issued the first in a series of harsh penalties: two years’ probation, with no television or postseason appearances during that time. Shipley left college coaching, in disgust, in 1973. Brown rose to become the NCAA’s enforcement chief.

What brought this long-forgotten story to mind was the sight last week of another coach who’d been railroaded unfairly with the willing participation of the NCAA. Tim Cohane, 70, sat in a federal courthouse in Buffalo while his lawyer, Sean O’Leary, argued that his long-running lawsuits against the NCAA, the Mid-American Conference and SUNY Buffalo, where he was once head basketball coach, deserved to be heard by a jury. Cohane’s essential complaint is that in 1999, a new athletic director, Bob Arkeilpane, ginned up a series of phony NCAA rules violations to force out Cohane. (As a state employee with a contract, Cohane was difficult to fire without cause.)

And, once again, the NCAA obliged. Although the primary alleged violation — watching prospects work out in a gym — is incredibly insignificant, the NCAA charged Cohane with unethical conduct and hit him with a dreaded “show cause” order. Any school that wanted to hire him as head coach would have had to explain its decision to the NCAA. Branded with that Scarlet “A,” as O’Leary put it in court, Cohane’s career as a college head coach was over.

In legal terms, the importance of the Cohane case is that, should he win, the NCAA would be labeled a “state actor.” It would then have to employ real due process, just like any state agency. It would upend a 25-year-old Supreme Court ruling, in a famous case involving Jerry Tarkanian, the former head coach at UNLV, that the NCAA was not a state actor. Thus it could treat those under its purview as shabbily as it saw fit — which it has done ever since.

At the hearing, the NCAA’s lawyer argued that the case should be tossed solely because his client was not a state actor. To the NCAA, its despicable role in destroying Cohane’s career is irrelevant.

When it was his turn to speak, O’Leary, a fiery man who once played for Cohane, angrily dredged up examples of heinous behavior by the defendants. How, with the seniors’ eligibility having expired, thus putting them out of reach of the NCAA, the school threatened to withhold their diplomas if they didn’t cooperate with investigators. How several players who had sided with Cohane were pressured to change their tune. How the Mid-American Conference secretly back-dated a damning report — a report Cohane only discovered seven years into the litigation. How a back channel developed between the conference and the NCAA as they conspired to give Arkeilpane what he wanted: a report that would doom the coach. (Arkeilpane, now at the University of Cincinnati, declined to comment.) How a Buffalo assistant coach whom Cohane had decided to fire after he was caught in a hotel room groping two high school girls — a photo of the incident is part of the evidence — was the only one of Cohane’s staff to keep his job.

The NCAA and SUNY Buffalo gave him a pass because he had aided in the investigation.

I have no insight into whether Cohane will prevail. During nearly a decade’s worth of litigation, the lower courts have generally been hostile to Cohane while the court of appeals has sided with him. What I do know is that Cohane is the first head coach since Tarkanian to stand and fight when the NCAA brought dubious charges without due process. A Cohane victory would help restore some integrity to a process that has been corrupt at least since the days of Beryl Shipley and Southwestern Louisiana.

Joe Nocera is a columnist for The New York Times.

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