Welcome back to Failure to Monitor. When we left off last time, the NCAA national office had established absolute control over the member schools. They gained the power to shut down entire programs if they saw fit. For the next few decades, they retained this power unchallenged. They punished schools for cheating, and the schools accepted it blindly. The 1970s, however, were a different story. This decade introduced a man whose mission was to tear down the NCAA. Jerry Tarkanian, now a hall of fame coach, took on the organization and filed a lawsuit that made it all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. So today, let’s take a look at what the court ruled, and how it shaped the NCAA for decades to come
In 1968, Jerry Tarkanian took over as head basketball coach of Long Beach State. Up to that point, the school had accomplished absolutely nothing. They had zero postseason appearances, and their lone claim to fame was Al Brightman, who played one season with the Boston Celtics in 1947. But the pioneering Tarkanian turned things around almost overnight. He began ruffling feathers from day one when he decided to skip the gradual integration happening at most schools and fielded a starting five made up of primarily black athletes. His days as a junior college coach also showed him how much talent was available in the JUCO ranks, and he was one of the first coaches to truly take advantage of that system. In only his third season, LBSU won the Big West conference, earning their first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament. And the winning didn’t stop there. Tarkanian created a small-scale dynasty, racking up four straight conference titles and tournament appearances, including two trips to the Elite Eight. In 1973, Tarkanian decided to take the head coaching job at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, or UNLV. Just like Long Beach State, the Runnin’ Rebels had no history whatsoever. They had only joined division one seven years prior. But just like his first job, Tarkanian had near-instant success. Again, his team made the NCAA tournament in only his third season. Over the course of the next two decades, Tarkanian would lead one of the sport’s premier powerhouses, compiling twelve tournament appearances, four trips to the Final Four, and one legendary national championship. On the court, Tarkanian was untouchable. Off the court, however, was a different story.
All the way back during his tenure at Long Beach State, Tarkanian wrote an op-ed for the local newspaper, in which he railed against the NCAA for what he considered unfair treatment. He claimed the NCAA levied harsh punishments on small schools while ignoring similar violations at blue blood programs. No matter how valid his claims may have been, he had made an enemy for life. And if there’s one group you don’t want to cross, it’s the one who has absolute power. In 1976, UNLV was given a two-year probation for recruiting violations. Even though the supposed cheating occurred in 1971, two years before Tarkanian took over, UNLV bowed to, let’s call it “outside pressure”, and suspended the coach for two entire seasons. In response, Tarkanian sued, claiming that the NCAA’s infractions system was a violation of due process. The lawsuit, like most of its kind, included an injunction to keep Tarkanian as the coach as long as the situation was still being played out in court. And when it came to the courts, this case was anything but cut and dry. The pieces of the puzzle ranged from the NCAA’s authority to the definition of the right to due process, to whether or not the actions of university athletic departments could be considered actions of the state. Much to the NCAA’s chagrin, the lawsuit meandered its way through the court system for an entire decade. Eventually, it arrived at the end of the road: the United States Supreme Court.
In 1988, the highest court in the land handed down their verdict. With a decision of 5 to 4, the court found that the NCAA did not violate Tarkanian’s right to due process. They determined that, although the NCAA acts as a state institution given that it is a collection of state universities, they had the authority to discipline member institutions. If you thought the organization was powerful before, now they had officially been named judge, jury, and executioner by the most powerful judicial body in the country. The court even parroted one of the league’s go-to defenses: “It’s all voluntary”. They said that because UNLV was allowed to leave the NCAA at any point, then their membership signaled consent to the organization’s rules and punishments. Never mind the fact that there are no legitimate alternatives to being in the NCAA. The choice was clear. Schools could either bend the knee to the NCAA or join the ranks of Morningside College and Marian University in the NAIA. And that’s no choice at all.
Despite winning the lawsuit, the NCAA didn’t come out unscathed. The discovery process gave everyone a peek behind the curtain into how the league handled infractions. To say it was unfair would be an understatement. The investigative staff was allowed to work directly with those judging the case, and schools were consistently punished with absolutely no tangible evidence. And although this led to some reform, such as a further separation of powers and a standard of evidence, it was too little too late. The NCAA was legally allowed to levy whatever punishment they wanted, no matter how trivial the violation might be. And they continue to wield this power until this day.
Next week, we’ll look at another lawsuit that made its way to the supreme court during this same time period. A case that did not go the NCAA’s way, and has ended up being the single most important decision in the history of college sports.