Jerry Tarkanian, basketball coach at Nevada Las Vegas, had his day in the Supreme Court Wednesday as the justices heard arguments in his 12-year dispute with the National Collegiate Athletic Assn., in which the ruling could change the way the NCAA disciplines its members.
Tarkanian’s lawyers told the court that the NCAA was obligated to give him a fair hearing when it ordered UNLV to suspend him for 2 years in 1976 for arranging a B grade for a basketball player and improperly recruiting at least two prospective players.
The 14th Amendment requires states to provide their citizens with “due process of law,” the coach’s attorneys said. Thus Tarkanian’s employer--a state university--could not suspend him without a hearing.
Tarkanian, who watched the court session from the sidelines, said later: “A lot of it was over my head, but I think the case boils down to fairness. Before (the NCAA) can charge someone with something, they should give him a fair hearing. I don’t think I received a fair hearing.”
NCAA lawyers argued that their organization, which monitors and coordinates athletic competition at more than 1,000 colleges and universities, is private and purely voluntary. They said that it was UNLV that chose to suspend Tarkanian and that it had the option of withdrawing from the NCAA instead.
“UNLV did not have to (discipline) Tarkanian--that was their decision, their option,” NCAA lawyer Rex Lee, the Justice Department’s solicitor general earlier in the Reagan Administration, said to the court.
But Samuel Lionel, a lawyer for Tarkanian, argued that UNLV’s only real option was to suspend Tarkanian because its athletic program could not survive outside the NCAA.
“The NCAA is the only game in town,” he said. “If the university wants to engage in major athletics, it must be a part of the NCAA.”
When the NCAA tried to discipline Tarkanian, the Nevada Supreme Court issued a ruling that both prohibited UNLV from suspending its basketball coach and enjoined the NCAA from expelling the university. The Nevada court held that for purposes of the 14th Amendment, the NCAA was equivalent to a state and therefore had to provide the coach due process.
The NCAA brought the case to the Supreme Court to appeal the state court injunction preventing it from expelling UNLV. The court is expected to rule by next July.
If Tarkanian wins, the NCAA will be required to give its members rights not now afforded to them, such as hearings in discipline cases and due process to athletes when it conducts drug tests.
On the other hand, a Supreme Court ruling in favor of the NCAA would strengthen its hand in disciplining member universities. Such an outcome might leave the NCAA with the power to expel the UNLV basketball team, which is usually in the national rankings.
Either way, Tarkanian apparently will continue as head coach at UNLV. Neither side has challenged the Nevada Supreme Court order prohibiting the university from suspending him.