There Were No Winners After American University Squared Off Against the NCAA

With lucrative football bowl assignments and basketball tournament spots heavily dependent on conference power ratings, being in the right NCAA conference can generate hundreds of thousands of dollars for a college or university. With so much at stake, it is easy to understand why teams are willing to play musical chairs with athletic conferences.

Most of the major changes over the past 10 years have been financially motivated, with schools looking to join strong athletic conferences with established bowl agreements and strong basketball conference ratings. (The disbanding of the Southwest Conference after four of its teams joined the Big 12 Conference is a prime example.) Some schools, however, switch conferences for other reasons. A little over a year ago, for example, American University, a founding member of the 15-yearold Colonial Athletic Association, announced that it would move to the Patriot League after the 2000-01 school year. The idea behind the move was to align American with similar academically selective private universities. The Patriot League is currently made up of six private schools - American, Bucknell, Colgate, Holy Cross, Lafayette and Lehigh - plus two military academies, West Point and the Naval Academy.

American made this decision expecting to be penalized. CAA bylaws require that a member school give the conference three years notice before leaving or be subject to sanctions. What American did not expect, however, was the severity of the penalty: a $250,000 fine and a ban from all CAA postseason tournaments, effectively preventing American from qualification for NCAA championships. While American would still technically be eligible to earn an at-large bid to, for example, the NCAA's men's basketball tournament, the chances of them winning such a bid were diminished by the fact that American plays in a so-called "minor" conference. (The team's 7-20 record didn't help, either.)

In response to the CAA's action, American University on Aug. 28, 2000, filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Washington, D.C., seeking a temporary injunction that would allow its teams to participate in CAA championships during the 2000-01 season. The lawsuit argued that the CAA had no right to keep its teams from participating in the conference's postseason tournaments. American claimed that CAA bylaws outlined only one sanction for schools that do not give the league a three-year warning of departure: a $250,000 penalty. While American did not contest the right of the CAA to impose the monetary penalty, it believed that barring student-athletes from championship play was excessively punitive.

It should be noted that American was not the only school to be ruled ineligible for championships after giving short notice. In December, East Carolina University announced it would leave the CAA for Conference USA beginning in 2001-02, but it was allowed to compete for league titles in the last academic year as part of a deal that makes it ineligible this year. Also, the University of Richmond announced last June that it would leave the CAA following the 2000-01 school year for the Atlantic 10 Conference.

In the lawsuit, American made two claims. First, the school argued that the CAA was in breach of contract. American argued that the only remedy available to the CAA under conference bylaws was monetary, and that the conference had no right to punish the school twice. American's second claim was that the CAA tortuously interfered with the school's contracts with its student-athletes. Since the courts have recognized that a scholarship is a contract, American could argue that by denying its teams a chance to compete for league championships, the CAA was interfering with students' expected benefits under their contracts with the university. In particular, American argued that the conference action targeted all student athletes and coaches for harsh sanctions without cause, and especially harmed graduating seniors. American University's president, Benjamin Landau, claimed that the CAA gained no benefits by its action, and that it hurt conference competitiveness and served only to penalize student-athletes and coaches.

The CAA countered by arguing that it had the ability to enforce its rules and discipline a member institution that did not honor its membership commitment. In addition, the CAA argued that absent egregious conduct, which the CAA argued was not present in this case, the courts should not interfere with the internal affairs of an intercollegiate sports conference. Finally, the CAA and officials at other Colonial schools claimed that all league members had a clear understanding that ineligibility for championships was a possible penalty for failure to comply with membership-notification rules.

On Oct. 17, after a two-hour hearing, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Hogan rejected American's request for a temporary restraining order. In rejecting both of American's claims, Judge Hogan ruled that the conference had the authority to impose the sanctions even though they were not explicitly stated in its rules.

The courts rarely interfere with the internal affairs, rules, regulations and bylaws of voluntary associations like the CAA. In fact, the only time the courts tend to interfere is when there is evidence of fraud or collusion, or when the organization's actions can be shown to be arbitrary or capricious. Yet, in several cases, the courts have gotten involved when an organization has appeared to overstep its authority. For example, in California State University, Hayward v. NCAA [121 Cal. Raptor. 85 (CT. App. 1975)], Hayward sought an injunction enjoining the NCAA from banning the entire athletic program indefinitely from post-season play. In granting the university a preliminary injunction, the court ruled that a voluntary association such as the NCAA is subject to judicial review when it clearly breaches one of its own rules.

More recently, in Christ the King Regional High School v. Catholic High Schools Athletics Association, Diocese of Brooklyn [624 N.Y.S.2d 755 (Sup. Ct. N.Y., 1995)], the court, in issuing a preliminary injunction against the association, held that it acted arbitrarily and capriciously when it failed to follow its own procedures in barring Christ the King's postseason participation. The court held that when an association has adopted a rule or guideline establishing a procedure to be followed in relation to a suspension, that procedure must be substantially observed.

Even though the court rejected American University's injunction request, the case raises a number of questions that have gone unanswered by the CAA. Why, for example, did the CAA need to ban the school from post-season play? In what way did the conference, or anyone else, benefit by its action? Besides American, who else was affected by the CAA's action?

The easiest question to answer is who was injured by the ban. Besides American, both East Carolina University and the University of Richmond, and all of their student-athletes and coaches, were penalized by the action. In addition, the CAA's actions weakened the conference and diminished the national competitiveness of the conference.

Why did the CAA come down so hard on American University? The CAA claims that it was only acting according to its bylaws, of which all league members had a clear understanding. (Judge Hogan, however, disagreed with the CAA on this point, finding that the sanctions were not explicitly stated in its rules.) It is possible that the CAA acted as it did because it wanted to send a message to the remaining member schools.

With the loss of American, East Carolina and Richmond after the 2000-01 academic year, the conference will have just six schools: George Mason, James Madison, Old Dominion, Virginia Commonwealth, North Carolina-Wilmington and William & Mary. This will jeopardize the conference's automatic berth in NCAA tournaments. It appears the CAA will have to recruit schools from or merge with another conference, lest it meet the unfortunate fate of the Southwest Conference.