(UR) Knoxville, TN — On Tuesday, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville agreed to pay a $2.4 million settlement in a federal lawsuit brought by eight women against the school’s football program. The case — in which the women claimed their allegations of sexual assault against fellow students went largely ignored by school officials — sheds light on loopholes in NCAA rules that allow for the special treatment of student-athletes.
“It is not surprising that where the financial interests of college sports align with the personal interests of athletes, that colleges will seek to help those individuals,” Marc Edelman, associate professor at the City University of New York and an expert on sports law, told Inside Higher Ed. “Ethically, of course, it is wrong…But as long as colleges continue to make huge sums of money from the performance of elite college athletes, that natural financial incentive will persist.”
One of the allegations in the lawsuit against the University of Tennessee, for instance, claimed school officials supplied the accused athletes with access to quality defense attorneys. While the school denied that specific charge, it did admit to having a list of six local lawyers athletes could choose from.
Writes Inside Higher Ed:
“The lawyers, all Tennessee graduates, included two former members of the university’s athletic board, a football color commentator for its television network and a prominent booster. Other students at Tennessee accused of crimes — and those who file complaints that they have been the victims of assaults or other crimes — did not receive the list.”
Amazingly — and according to the organization’s own assistant director of public and media relations — this type of favoritism isn’t against NCAA regulations.
“Generally, providing a list of attorneys to student-athletes is not necessarily an issue, as long as the student-athlete in question pays the going rate for similar services in the area,” the NCAA’s Meghan Durham told Inside Higher Ed.
It wouldn’t even be an issue, according to Durham, if a student-athlete’s attorney were on the school’s athletic board, though she admitted the school “should be mindful of potential conflicts of interest.”
The problem, however, is that it’s unclear as to whether or not these athletes are actually paying for university-supplied attorneys’ services.
While covering the University of Tennessee story, for instance, The Tennessean contacted several of the attorneys on the list the school provides to accused athletes — and none would acknowledge being paid for their time.
And this type of practice is hardly unique to Knoxville.
In 2013, the Wall Street Journal ran an article strongly insinuating that Gainesville attorney Huntley Johnson, himself a graduate of the University of Florida’s law school, has over the course of two decades represented dozens of the university’s student-athletes who’ve found themselves in trouble with the law.
As to whether he was paid for those services, Johnson would answer only that he was “aware of NCAA regulations as they relate to student-athletes and legal representation and we wish to assure you that we are in compliance with said regulations.”
Last year, the Times-Picayune of New Orleans highlighted the passing of a celebrated local attorney, Nathan Fisher, who for decades had offered his services to athletes at no charge. The newspaper wrote, quite simply and unabashedly, that:
“Mr. Fisher was best known for representing LSU athletes who encountered various legal troubles, a service he provided pro bono.”
In 2014, questions were raised by the L.A. Times as to how a USC player accused of lying to police was able to afford legal representation from a prominent attorney who’d previously acted as counsel for celebrities like Rihanna and Snoop Dogg.
The article goes on to point out that NCAA rules permit “student-athletes to receive pro bono legal services from an outside agency provided the service is not based on the player’s athletic ability and would be offered to non-athletes.”
But as the case in Tennessee demonstrates, such access to quality defense attorneys is not in fact always offered to regular students.
“Athlete privilege is real,” Katherine Redmond Brown, founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes, wrote in a recent blog post. “Boosters surround him making sure his family is comfortable…If he gets into legal trouble, he has some of the best lawyers in town available to him — either pro bono or paid for by those same boosters.
Dionne Koller, director of the Center of Sport and Law at the University of Baltimore, summed up the situation quite succinctly while speaking to Inside Higher Ed:
“Even if it is a perfectly legitimate practice,” she said, “the optics are not great.”
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