Former Northwestern basketball player Johnnie Vassar has filed an antitrust lawsuit against Northwestern University and the National Collegiate Athletic Association for the tactics he alleges the university used to force him to leave its basketball program, and NCAA rules that prevent athletes from being able to play sports for a year when they transfer.
If successful, Vassar's suit could severely curtail the ability of the association and its member schools to place universal limitations, including the one-year sit-out rule, on athlete transfers.
Vassar arrived at Northwestern in 2014-15 and played one season before leaving the team. He intended to transfer, but chose to stay at Northwestern after further consideration. He could do so because he was on a four-year scholarship.
However, Vassar alleges that his departure from the basketball program—which he hasn't been part of for more than a year—was not voluntary. Instead, his suit claims, Wildcats coach Chris Collins and his staff intimidated, demeaned and misled Vassar in order to get him to "voluntarily withdraw" from the team, because they were not satisfied with his play. Under NCAA rules, schools are not allowed to pull scholarships for athletic reasons.
In the full complaint, Vassar alleges that:
● Collins and his staff tried to get him to sign a "roster deletion" form against his wishes in order to use his scholarship on another player. His evidence includes a handwritten note from an assistant coach instructing him to sign the form. Voluntary withdrawal would have taken away many benefits Vassar received as part of his athletic scholarship.
● Northwestern gave him an "internship" as a janitor, and then attempted to frame him for falsifying timesheets. The university used those timesheets as grounds to remove him from his athletic scholarship.
● Northwestern admitted that it had wrongfully terminated his athletic scholarship and that he should not have been doing maintenance work for the university under the guise of an "internship."
● The university's attorneys tried to give him a "cash payment" to "go away."
● Collins was verbally abusive in an effort to get Vassar to transfer.
Where does the NCAA come in? Vassar argues that the association's eligibility rules for transfers unreasonably restrain trade—in his case, he claims that other schools were interested in having him play for them, but only if he could play right away, which the NCAA does not allow.
The lawsuit provides what it says is material evidence of wrongdoing by Northwestern. The timecards that Northwestern submitted as having been falsified, and thus as grounds for removing his scholarships, contained crossed-out names of others, and also spelled his name wrong.
Vassar also claims that assistant coach Armon Gates admitted to his mother that NU was forcing him off the team, and claims to have a handwritten note from former Director of Player Development Ryan Humphrey, now at Notre Dame, that urged Vassar to sign the roster deletion form. The note allegedly reads as follows:
Sign this paper.
You can still work out
and play pickup with
the guys. I told you
before I am still here for you – Hump.
Northwestern hoped to use Vassar's scholarship spot on another player but could not do so unless he gave up his spot on the basketball roster. Vassar claims Northwestern attempted to get him to sign the form under false pretenses, calling him into the basketball offices a number of times to attempt to get his signature. The university also announced in a press release that Vassar would transfer, even though Vassar had not signed any transfer documents.
Since Collins arrived at Northwestern in 2013, six players (four on scholarship) have transferred or left the program. One of those players signed a non-disclosure agreement with the university, which is not common in college athletics. A walk-on said that "the coaching staff would make me feel like I wasn't part of the team" and a scholarship player said his relationship with Collins soured.
Vassar has big-time representation in this suit: His attorney, Steve Berman, is part of the Jenkins v. NCAA antitrust lawsuit, which is currently the biggest threat to NCAA amateurism.
Northwestern spokesman Al Cubbage released the following statement: "We do not believe this claim has any legal merit. We will defend the University vigorously." After a game against Eastern Washington on Tuesday, Collins said, "We'll let those things be handled behind closed doors."
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