Jury Awards Fired Coach $2.5M in Suit Against CHSAA

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A jury last week determined a Colorado Springs, Colo., man was the victim of racial discrimination when he was fired from his assistant basketball coach position at Sand Creek High School in 2017, with a judge ordering the Colorado High School Activities Association to pay $200,000 for economic damages caused by discrimination against William "Trey" Harris, $1.3 million for non-economic damages caused by the discrimination, and $1 million for punitive damages.

As reported by Logan Smith of CBS affiliate KCNC in Denver, court documents revealed that in December of the 2016-17 season, as Sand Creek's on-court success brought hopes of an appearance in the state playoffs, the team’s then head coach, Robert Hawkins, attempted to add a player — a senior from another school (identified only as "RM") who hoped to transfer to the Sand Creek program.

Court documents describe a conversation between then-CHSAA commissioner Paul Angelico and then-Sand Creek athletic director Jared Felice about Coach Hawkins’ interest in RM’s transfer. As stated in the documents, Angelico suggested to Felice that a special exemption to the transfer rule would allow the player to practice with the team. Felice, however, misinterpreted the conversation to indicate the player could also play in varsity games.

Upon the advice of Felice, Hawkins put RM in a varsity game on Jan. 2, 2017, before any transfer applications had been completed or finalized.

Once CHSAA representatives had been made aware of the ineligible player violation, Felice sent a letter to CHSAA — a letter which assistant coach Harris had no knowledge of — falsely claiming that RM had been recruited to the team by Harris, who owned and operated PLUTO Basketball, a talent development program in which RM had participated in 2014. CHSAA bylaws do not allow a transfer player to “follow” a coach to another team.

Court documents state that Harris, when told by Hawkins that RM would be transferring, did not approve of the move, nor of playing RM in games. Harris told investigators he felt adding RM to the team was unfair to the current members of the team.

The CHSAA placed Sand Creek on restriction, effectively making the team ineligible for the state playoffs, but the governing body also left the door open for Sand Creek to take its own “corrective action,” according to KCNC.

During a school hallway encounter, the head coach and the school’s AD informed Harris that he would no longer be allowed to attend practices, should not attend games, and recommended he contact the NAACP, per the court documents. They advised Harris that, in their opinion, the CHSAA was targeting him “because he was Black,” as Harris recollected.

On Jan. 20, Felice notified the CHSAA that Sand Creek had forfeited the Jan. 2 game, removed “RM” from the team, and dismissed Harris. The CHSAA lifted its restriction on the Sand Creek team 10 days later.

In September 2018, Harris filed a lawsuit against Hawkins, Felice, Angelico and Falcon School District 49 and its human resources director and superintendent, as well as against the CHSAA.

A year later, according to the court documents, Harris reached an undetermined settlement with almost all of them, except Angelico, who retired and was later dismissed from the litigation, and the CHSAA, which opted to fight the lawsuit. CHSAA lawyers requested a dismissal, but Judge R. Brooke Jackson wrote in a July 2020 ruling, “A reasonable jury could find that, based on the facts, CHSAA was aware of District 49’s discrimination against Mr. Harris.”

The legal team for Harris released the following response when contacted by CBS4 about the trial:

After almost a full week of testimony and evidence, an independent jury held that CHSAA’s role in terminating Trey Harris was not only unfair but also a result of racial discrimination.  Not only did the jury send a clear message with a $2.5 million verdict, they also demanded that CHSAA issue a formal apology to Mr. Harris clearing him of any wrong doing.  According to Trey Harris’ attorney Diane King of King & Greisen, LLP, “Despite the enormous evidence of a system riddled with racial injustice, CHSAA still refuses to admit any responsibility.  Instead, we continue to hear the same platitudes that we have heard for decades about how the system is fair and ‘equitable.’  That tells us all that we still have a long way to go.  The first step is accepting responsibility.”

Alex Halpern, a CHSAA attorney, provided the following statement:

“CHSAA exists to level the playing field and challenge individuals to meet their highest potential in all arenas of life. CHSAA condemns discrimination in all its forms. In our one hundred years of existence we have always strived to create a positive and equitable environment, and we look forward to carrying that tradition into the future. Though we do not believe the evidence supports the Jury’s decision, we wish Mr. Harris and his family the best. We are currently considering the options available to respond to the decision.”

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