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Keeping College Sports Clean

It was a close call, as the fans say. But the U.S. Supreme Court was right to uphold the authority of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. to discipline a popular basketball coach who violated the rules that govern college sports.

Jerry Tarkanian of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas sued the NCAA in 1977 when it investigated him for a variety of rule infractions. The investigation persuaded the NCAA to put the UNLV basketball team on probation for two years and suspend Tarkanian for the same amount of time. The coach fought the suspension in court, his attorneys arguing that the NCAA’s secretive investigative procedures deprived Tarkanian of due process of law. Because he is employed by a state university, Tarkanian’s lawyers argued further that the NCAA was acting on behalf of the state and thus subject to the many constitutional limits imposed on government investigations.

Tarkanian’s winning record as a coach has made him hugely popular in Nevada, and he prevailed in that state’s courts. But the Supreme Court overruled those decisions by a 5-4 vote. Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens concluded that the NCAA is “a private actor” when it represents the interests of its entire membership in an investigation of one public university. Because the NCAA is a private organization, its rules are set by the members, who agree to abide by them when they affiliate with the association, as UNLV and most other colleges do.

Had the decision gone the other way, the NCAA could hardly have investigated sports at public colleges, which make up more than half of the NCAA membership. Now the NCAA is free to exercise wider authority over collegiate sports. Used wisely, that authority can help colleges drive scandal out of collegiate athletics.

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