Tarkanian Loses in Supreme Court : Ruling Reinforces NCAA’s Power to Use Own Enforcement Methods

Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court, in a key ruling supporting the enforcement powers of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn., ruled Monday that the organization may force Nevada Las Vegas to suspend its highly successful basketball coach, Jerry Tarkanian, for recruiting violations and other irregularities.

On a 5-4 vote, the high court said that the NCAA does not have to follow the same constitutional guidelines that cover government agencies in investigating violations of regulations. Because the NCAA is a private group, it may use its own enforcement methods and impose its own punishments, even if they do not provide coaches or colleges with full due process of the law, the court said.

The ruling was seen as a crucial victory for the organization, which enforces an elaborate code of rules on athlete recruiting and other facets of the 960 member-colleges’ programs.

If the NCAA sanctions against Tarkanian had been thrown out, the organization’s system for enforcing its rules would have needed to be overhauled.


“It would have meant a very large and expensive change in the way investigations are conducted,” said attorney Rex Lee, who represented the NCAA in the case. “They like to conduct investigations in a cooperative way with the universities. But if Tarkanian had won, it would have been changed into a highly adversarial proceeding at every step of the way.”

Legal experts said that the decision will make it easier for the NCAA to increase its efforts on new fronts, such as requiring member institutions’ athletes to submit to drug testing.

The decision, however, will not affect a California judge’s ruling that barred the NCAA from conducting drug tests in the state. Last August at San Jose, Superior Court Judge Conrad Rushing ruled in favor of two Stanford University athletes because the California Constitution applies to private as well as governmental actions.

It was not clear what will happen to Tarkanian, who has a 387-91 record in 15 seasons at UNLV.


The NCAA put the Las Vegas basketball program on 2 years’ probation in 1977 for recruiting violations and ordered the state-run school to suspend Tarkanian from coaching for 2 years.

Tarkanian obtained a court order blocking the suspension and continued coaching, and the case had been in litigation until Monday.

Richard D. Shultz, the NCAA’s executive director, said in a brief statement issued at the organization’s headquarters at Shawnee Mission, Kan.: “Any subsequent action will depend upon further review and study of the matter by the NCAA Committee on Infractions.”

He added, however: “This decision will, we hope, discourage lawsuits regarding alleged violation of federal constitutional rights. We always have felt that the enforcement procedures set in place by the membership provided ample due process.”

UNLV President Robert C. Maxson called on the NCAA to take no further action against Tarkanian, noting the 2 years of probation the UNLV basketball program has already served in conjunction with the case.

“Coach Tarkanian has surely been through enough during this period of time, and I have every reason to believe the NCAA will honor our appeal that they not pursue this matter,” Maxson said.

There was no immediate indication of the NCAA’s intent. The six members of the Committee on Infractions that investigated Tarkanian more than 10 years ago have since been replaced, and the new members have not said whether they will initiate a case against Tarkanian and UNLV.

Tarkanian, after being notified of the decision, told the Associated Press: “Naturally, I’m disappointed.” He refused to discuss his next step, saying: “I don’t want to get into that right now.”


The high court ruling overturned a decision by the Nevada Supreme Court, which had concluded in 1987 that the NCAA, in taking action against UNLV and Tarkanian, was essentially acting as a quasi-governmental agency and therefore was compelled to abide by the Constitution’s protections for individual rights. The Constitution’s requirements apply only to the government, and not to private organizations.

The Nevada court said that as an employee of a public university, Tarkanian deserved the full “due process of law” guaranteed by the 14th Amendment before he could be suspended from his job.

The 2-year NCAA investigation of Tarkanian did not meet this legal standard, the state court said, because Tarkanian did not have the opportunity to cross-examine all the witnesses who supplied information about recruiting violations and other irregularities allegedly perpetrated by his basketball program.

The Nevada court also noted that the panel that heard his case was selected by the NCAA, and not by an impartial body.

The 1976 NCAA investigation of the UNLV’s basketball program found the university guilty of 38 rule violations. Tarkanian was judged guilty of 10 of them, including arranging a B grade for a student-athlete who had not been attending class, providing free airline transportation for an athlete and pressuring one athlete and his family not to cooperate with the NCAA investigation.

Writing for the high court, Justice John Paul Stevens said that the NCAA did not act as a governmental agency and therefore was free to use its own methods of due process.

“NCAA did not--indeed, could not--directly discipline Tarkanian or any other state university employee,” Stevens wrote. Rather, it issued a report demanding that the university either suspend its coach or stop playing basketball in the NCAA’s privately administered sports network.

Stevens wrote: “The NCAA is properly viewed as a private actor when it represents the interests of its entire membership in an investigation of one public university.”


Had the court ruled for Tarkanian, the NCAA could have found itself having to tread much more carefully with coaches and athletes at state universities, compared to those at private schools. Its member institutions include both public universities such as UCLA and private universities such as USC.

Justice Byron R. (Whizzer) White, who 50 years ago at Colorado was the country’s top college football player, dissented in the ruling, saying that he would have ruled for Tarkanian.

The NCAA “acted jointly with UNLV” in seeking to suspend Tarkanian, and therefore should be required to afford him his constitutional rights, White wrote. His dissent in the case was joined by Justices William J. Brennan Jr., Thurgood Marshall and Sandra Day O’Connor.

In addition to Stevens, the justices ruling in favor of the NCAA were William H. Rehnquist and Harry A. Blackmun, Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy.