Northwestern files motion to dismiss Johnnie Vassar lawsuit

    On November 14, 2016, former Northwestern basketball player Johnnie Vassar filed a lawsuit against Northwestern and the NCAA. On January 31, 2017, NU and the NCAA finally responded, both filing separate motions to dismiss the complaint. Here’s an overview of Vassar’s argument and how NU responded:

    In the complaint, Vassar claims that NU harassed him to transfer, removed him from the basketball team, forced him to work menial jobs for the athletic department to maintain his athletic scholarship and then unjustly cancelled his athletic scholarship. The main argument is that NU breached the athletic scholarship contract by revoking the scholarship on improper grounds.

    However, in July 2015, Vassar signed a “Non-Participant Scholarship Status” agreement. NU states that Vassar had indicated he wanted to transfer on Twitter in March 2015 (and that it was a mutual decision, he wasn’t harassed), but hadn’t transferred by July. So they had him sign the non-participant agreement, which removed Vassar from the basketball team and allowed Vassar to maintain his athletic scholarship by completing a 8-hour-per-week work service requirement in the athletic department.

    NU claims that Vassar “complained” about his work assignment in the Northwestern Athletic Facilities Department, which Vassar claims was “janitorial and maintenance” work. In January 2016, Vassar’s attorney contacted NU about the work assignment and athletic scholarship. By April 20, 2016, NU notified Vassar that it was “cancelling his athletic scholarship because he had failed to comply with the terms of the Non-Participant Agreement.”

    Vassar argues that the cancellation was a breach of contract under the original terms of the athletic scholarship, but NU responds by saying that those terms were no longer in effect, as Vassar had signed the non-participant agreement and was subject to those terms.

    When NU revoked his athletic scholarship, Vassar appealed to NU’s Athletic Aid Appeals Committee. Because Vassar had complained about his work requirement, the committee’s decision was to relieve Vassar of the work, cancelling his athletic scholarship and providing him with full academic aid, which NU said covered the same costs.

    The second part of Vassar’s argument claims that his “athletic scholarship was more valuable than the academic scholarship, providing Johnnie with summer school, early registration as well as access to facilities, athletic training, medical care, academic advising, and tutoring. Indeed, without his athletic scholarship, Johnnie paid for gym time and personal trainers/therapists (such as paying approximately $2,500 per week for three weeks during the summer of 2016) which would not have been needed if he was on an athletic scholarship.”

    But NU argues that “the Non-Participant Agreement does not provide [Vassar] with access to any training facilities or services, medical services or tutoring that Northwestern may make available to its student-athletes.” Under this agreement, Vassar wasn’t entitled to his alleged damages.

    NU appears to be correct in these assertions, as Vassar was subject to the terms of the non-participant agreement that he signed and not the original athletic scholarship. But what NU’s response doesn’t explicitly address is how Vassar “failed to comply with the terms of the Non-Participant Agreement.”

    Vassar’s complaint claims that NU said “[t]he July 2015 contract was breached because Johnnie regularly worked fewer than the agreed-upon weekly hours (8) and, subsequently, submitted fraudulent reports to the athletic department.” Vassar believed he worked the required amount of hours, so he appealed the cancellation of his athletic scholarship. Vassar’s complaint then alleges that in the hearing, NU “submitted what it purported to be Johnnie’s timecards, even though it was clear the timecards were from someone else whose name was crossed out or even misspelled Johnnie’s name.”

    NU’s response never mentions anything about timecards presented in the hearing. It remains unclear exactly what terms Vassar failed to comply with in the non-participant agreement. Both sides agree that Vassar did not enjoy doing the work requirement, but did he actually violate it?

    This question might not even matter, as the court could dismiss the complaint based off NU’s argument – that the alleged breach of contract was not even the contract in effect at the time of the alleged breach. This will be determined at the status conference on Feb. 9.

    The fate of Vassar’s class action against the NCAA will also be determined at the status conference. Basically, Vassar, along with others, argue that the NCAA transfer rules restrict competition and violate the Sherman Act. The argument is that by having to sit out a year before being eligible to play (year-in-residence bylaw), transfers are restricted, and the rule is anticompetitive. The NCAA disagrees, and says that its eligibility rules are “presumptively procompetitive” (by nature, encourage competition) and that the year-in-residence bylaw is non-commercial and doesn’t implicate the Sherman Act.

    The odds are stacked against Vassar in his case against the NCAA. Recently, in Devin Pugh v. NCAA, a case apart of the larger class action suit, the Southern District of Indiana dismissed a very similar claim, ruling that the year-in-residence bylaw “is presumptively procompetitive and, therefore, does not violate the Sherman Act.” It seems unlikely that Vassar’s case would have a different ruling.


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