Sports Litigation Alert recently featured my latest article on the case of Marist v. Brady, in its August 13, 2010 issue. The article, which I have posted below, provides a more detailed analysis of the judgment that Marist obtained against James Madison University. My sincere thanks to Holt Hackney, publisher of Sports Litigation Alert.
A small college in Poughkeepsie, New York has claimed victory in its legal battle against another university after refusing to accept the indifference with which coaching contracts are often treated. In a few short weeks, the result of the case has sent waves through the virtual free agency system in collegiate coaching and has even reached the shores of the professional sports landscape.
The case of Marist College v. Matthew Brady, The Commonwealth of Virginia and James Madison University (“Marist v. JMU”) arose from a rather ordinary occurrence in collegiate athletics. Marist’s men’s basketball coach Matt Brady signed a four-year contract extension with the college. Less than one year into that contract, Brady accepted the head coaching position at James Madison University (JMU). Usually, the story ends here.
However, Brady’s contract with Marist contained two keys terms. First, Brady was precluded from discussing employment opportunities and accepting another head coaching position without the written consent of Marist. Second, if the contract was terminated, Brady agreed to end all contact with Marist basketball program recruits and to refrain from offering scholarships to Marist players, or anyone Brady or his staff recruited to play at Marist.
When Brady’s intentions become known to Marist’s athletic administration, the college was prepared to grant Brady his freedom. Marist, however, was insistent upon Brady adhering to the terms in his contract relating to the solicitation of current Marist players and recruits. Brady subsequently accepted the position at JMU. But contrary to the terms of his contract as reaffirmed by Marist, Brady contacted the players that he had recruited to attend Marist. Four of those recruits were offered, and accepted, scholarships to attend JMU and play for Brady.
Marist took legal action, bringing suit not only against Brady for breach of contract, but significantly, against JMU for interfering with Marist’s contract. Marist declared victory over JMU after a New York Supreme Court entered a judgment of default against JMU by way of a memorandum of decision dated June 30, 2010.
A judgment of default, which accepts Marist’s allegations as accurate, represents a procedural victory rather than a judgment on the merits of the case. Nevertheless, Marist’s attorney, Paul O’Sullivan, spoke of the court’s ruling in terms of its effects on the larger landscape of collegiate athletics:
“This case could well set a precedent for college and university athletics nationwide…Coaches have to abide by contracts, and other institutions have to respect those agreements. If that contract is breached, damages will be assessed. It’s a simple lesson in fiduciary responsibility and contractual obligation.”
Marist’s claims against Brady have yet to be decided. In addition, perhaps the most interesting legal question remains. Brady’s “no-recruit” clause, requiring him to refrain from recruiting those players that he brought to Marist, may not stand if tested in a court of law. Michael McCann, a professor at Vermont School of Law and a sports law expert, raised two issues with the no-recruit clause in an August 2009 interview with Siena Saints Blog (SienaSaintsBlog.com). First, Marist cannot legally prevent the movement of student-athletes to another college or university, nor can Marist require that student-athletes remain at Marist. Second, the no-recruit clause may be void on public policy grounds, as it interferes with educational opportunities for student-athletes. It remains to be seen whether a New York court would enforce this clause, which necessarily affects student-athletes who are not parties to the agreement between Marist and Brady.
From a legal perspective, the precedential value of the case may be limited. But Marist’s actions may demonstrate to other colleges and universities the benefits of enforcing their coaching contracts. In fact, shortly after the judgment of default was entered against JMU in this case, a much higher profile dispute surfaced. The parent company of the Tennessee Titans, Tennessee Football Inc., brought suit against the University of Southern California (USC) and its new coach, Lane Kiffin, stemming from USC’s hiring of Titans’ running backs coach Kennedy Pola on the eve of training camp. The Titans allege that USC and Kiffin interfered with the team’s contract with Pola, which required that he receive permission from the team before speaking to other potential employers.
Although the Titans dispute with USC and Kiffin is in its infancy, numerous media outlets have made the connection between the legal action taken by the Titans and Marist. That begs the question of whether a mid-major in Poughkeepsie, New York has triggered the transformation of the virtual free agent system in collegiate coaching contracts or whether this case will be considered a rare exception to the rule? The answer likely lies somewhere in between. Marist’s stand may not have transformative effects, but it has shone a light upon the business of collegiate coaching. Taken in concert with the legal action brought by the Titans, there is evidence that colleges and universities are more willing to enforce their contracts, and take legal action against competing employers.
Of course, the success of Marist’s litigation does not necessarily translate to other schools. Colleges and universities have been willing participants in the free agent system in collegiate athletics, often hiring coaches while they are under contract at their preceding institutions. A college or university will have to closely examine its own hiring practices before going on the offensive and bringing suit against another institution for interfering with an existing coaching contract.
When Stanford University signed head coach Jim Harbaugh to a contract extension last December, Harbaugh wouldn’t so much as commit to coaching at the university for the upcoming season:
“Nobody has promised that…I’m not going to write anything in blood on a stone tablet.”
Emboldened by Marist’s success, colleges and universities may now seek to change the prevailing attitude that coaching contracts are no more than prenuptial agreements, setting forth the penalties should either party decide to end the relationship. Should this culture change, Marist may be remembered as a beacon for other colleges and universities with regard to enforcing and protecting its contractual relationships with coaches.