Year in Sports Law: B1G Coach Cases, Big Baby and the Big FTX Scam

On Wednesday, Sportico reviewed the NCAA amateurism meltdown. We now turn to misbehaving coaches and other troublemakers making news in 2023.

Michigan Sign-Stealing Scandal Tests Conference Authority

The Big Ten’s suspension of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh over a sign-stealing scandal involving Wolverines football analyst Connor Stalions became a major controversy. Although Harbaugh wasn’t accused of partaking in or even knowing about the misconduct, and although the NCAA has not made any findings, the Big Ten suspended the coach for three critical games in November. The conference deemed it had enough information to punish Harbaugh under the conference’s sportsmanship policy. Harbaugh and Michigan sued, hoping to obtain a temporary restraining order. But the Big Ten’s decision to impose a suspension in the late afternoon on a federal holiday complicated Harbaugh’s timing. Harbaugh didn’t get a TRO and Michigan dropped the case. The Wolverines won all three games without Harbaugh under offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore. The team finished the season 13-0 and is ranked No. 1 as it prepares to play Alabama in the Rose Bowl.

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MSU’s Ouster of Mel Tucker Raises Questions About Evidence, Process

Michigan State University fired head football coach Mel Tucker for cause in September following allegations Tucker engaged in improper sexual conduct—specifically “phone sex”—with victims’ rights advocate Brenda Tracy, whom the university retained in 2021 as an outside vendor for one event. Tucker flatly refutes the allegation, claims his actions were consensual and argues Tracy manipulated evidence. Still owed about $80 million in a 10-year, $95 million contract, Tucker could sue MSU for breach of contract, defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. One key legal question would be whether Tracy counts as a university vendor for purposes of a for-cause firing under applicable contract language. Meanwhile, MSU spent $80,000 with an executive search firm to hire Tucker’s replacement, Jonathan Smith.

Northwestern Hazing Scandal Brings Scrutiny and Lawsuits

The college sports world was stunned in June when a student newspaper, the Daily Northwestern, broke news that a former football player alleged he was victimized by a grotesque hazing ritual known as “running.” It features upperclassmen dressed in masks “dry-humping” a victim in front of his teammates while in a dark locker room. The university hired a law firm to investigate, and though the firm found insufficient evidence that coach Pat Fitzgerald knew about the hazing, Northwestern president Michael Schill suspended Fitzgerald for two weeks. After public outcry and more allegations of player mistreatment, Schill fired Fitzgerald with cause despite his not being accorded a hearing between his suspension and firing. The controversy has led to Fitzgerald suing the school for breach of contract and former players suing the school for negligence. With so much lingering fallout, Northwestern’s handling of the crisis clearly won’t serve as a playbook for schools facing similar controversies.

Daniel Snyder Finally Sells Commanders Amid Multiple Controversies

After a tumultuous, litigious and ultimately unsuccessful 24-year run as owner of the Washington Commanders, Daniel Snyder sold the team in June for $6.05 billion to a group led by Josh Harris. Snyder, who bought the Commanders (Redskins) for $800 million, was repeatedly besieged by controversy. He was accused of sexual harassment and overseeing a workplace where women were regularly mistreated and degraded. Snyder combatively tried to avoid testifying in Congress, was accused of hiding money from the league and players, and was even linked to a criminal investigation by the office of Jessica Aber, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, into fraud. Those allegations aren’t going away, either. On Wednesday, former Commanders limited partner Robert Rothman sued Bank of America, claiming the bank and Snyder conspired to force him to sell his stake. The league repeatedly investigated Snyder, but didn’t divulge many findings. Some speculated other owners would move to vote Snyder out, but that was a quixotic idea. The league has never expelled an owner, and it would have required 24 owners—some of whom might have worried about setting a new precedent—to vote yes. He instead left voluntarily, with a big check. But no amount of money will rehabilitate Snyder’s disastrous legacy.

Sam Bankman-Fried Convicted as Athlete Endorsers Face Lawsuits

In November, a jury in New York convicted Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of imploded crypto exchange FTX, of fraud, conspiracy and money laundering. Bankman-Fried faces sentencing in March for convictions that carry a maximum of 115 years in prison. The sports hook is that Tom Brady, Shohei Ohtani, Naomi Osaka and Steph Curry are among the athletes who endorsed FTX and are now being sued by investors who say they illegally duped fans. Athletes should be careful next time they endorse what seems like “the next big thing.”

Former NBA Players Glen Davis and Will Bynum Convicted in Benefits Scheme

Glen “Big Baby” Davis was a productive NBA big man from 2007 to 2015 and earned $34.4 million in salaries during that time. He’s now facing the prospect of spending many years in prison after he and fellow retired NBA player Will Bynum were convicted in November of orchestrating a criminal scheme to defraud the NBA players’ health and benefit welfare plan. The players submitted fraudulent invoices, claiming reimbursements for fictitious medical expenses. Davis’ nickname became a source of controversy in the case, with his lawyers claiming it reflected his “cognitive and emotional limitations” and should be regarded as exonerating. Davis, however, had previously said the nickname reflected him being born weighing 14 pounds–in other words, a big baby. Expert testimony concerning Davis’s alleged intellectual deficits was deemed inadmissible partly because it wasn’t based on a review of medical records predating Davis’s criminal acts.

Other developments involving those who have encountered trouble:

  • The NBA suspended Memphis Grizzlies star Ja Morant for 25 games due to repeated instances of holding firearms on Instagram Live videos. Although Morant broke no law, he breached his contractual duties and CBA obligations. The league is mindful that mishandling of firearms sets a poor example for young fans and is problematic for its relations with broadcasters and sponsors.

  • Police arrested Sheffield Steelers (England) defenseman Matt Petgrave for manslaughter after an on-ice collision with Nottingham Panthers center Adam Johnson led to Johnson being slashed in the throat by a skate blade. Hockey commentators debated whether the slash was intentional, reckless or an accident. Civil litigation might follow. Key questions are whether Petgrave had a track record of incidents, the quality and safety features of both players’ equipment, and the extent to which Johnson may have assumed the risk.

  • Former Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Trevor Bauer gained some degree of vindication by reaching a settlement with his domestic violence accuser, who dropped her legal claims. Bauer paid her no money and he insists the accusations are outright lies. But he received the longest non-lifetime suspension in MLB history. Bauer could potentially sue the league.

  • Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre was so incensed by remarks about his connection to a welfare misappropriation scheme that he sued some of his most prominent critics—including sports talk show hosts Pat McAfee and Shannon Sharpe—for defamation. While on air, they described Favre, who has not been charged with a crime, as “stealing” money from poor people. The lawsuits faced hurdles, including that statements of opinion, hyperbole and imaginative expressions aren’t defamatory. Favre and McAfee settled, while a federal judge dismissed Favre’s suit against Sharpe.

  • Former SportsCenter anchor Sage Steele’s unique employment law battle with ESPN ended in a settlement. Steele accused ESPN of excluding her from top assignments and demanding she apologize for controversial comments about former President Barack Obama and COVID-19 vaccines. Her case had to overcome ESPN not firing, suspending, fining or disciplining her and ESPN’s right to make assignment choices. Steele insisted her First Amendment right was at stake. But the First Amendment only stops the government, not a private entity, from taking adverse action. While Steele noted Connecticut has a statute forbidding employers from punishing employees when they engage in speech, it only applies when the speech doesn’t interfere with job performance or the employee-employer relationship.

  • Former New York Knicks star Charles Oakley saw his lawsuit against Knicks owner James Dolan revived by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in May. Oakley is still suing over his ejection from Madison Square Garden in 2017 when he and security guards scuffled. The case, now back in trial court, raises key issues about how security guards should interact with spectators during live sporting events. Oakley is also the plaintiff in a new lawsuit against a movie producer for allegedly defrauding him of more than $1 million and unlawfully misappropriating Oakley’s NIL. Oakley argues he was promised a share of profits from his financing of two films, Pastor Brown and Next Day Air.

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