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Costly Mistake

March 8, 2005

A week after being admonished in court for a procedural error that may have warranted a mistrial, the National Collegiate Athletic Association announced Monday that it would bear the brunt of settling a lawsuit filed last year by Rick Neuheisel, former football coach at the University of Washington. The settlement, worth a total of $4.5 million, came as closing arguments were due to begin in a five-week jury trial.

The NCAA agreed to cover $2.5 million of the $3 million total cash payment to Neuheisel. The university will pay a total of $500,000 and to let the coach keep a $1.5 million "loan" Washington had given him in 2002 for housing.

Neuheisel sued the association and Washington after the university fired him in 2003, citing his participation in a high-stakes office pool for the NCAA men's basketball tournament and his alleged misrepresentations to NCAA investigators about the gambling. Neuheisel's lawsuit charged the university with wrongfully firing him and the NCAA with manipulating its investigative process to pressure Washington to dismiss him.

Last Monday, as testimony in the jury trial neared its end, lawyers for the NCAA acknowledged that they had failed to inform Neuheisel's lawyers that a change had occurred in the NCAA's investigative rules weeks before the coach was interviewed about his alleged gambling in the summer of 2003. The rules change focused on how much NCAA investigators had to tell an interviewee about the purpose of the discussion.

Neuheisel's lawyers complained that finding out about the policy change so late in the trial damaged his client's case and warranted a judgment in his favor or a mistrial, which the judge said he would consider granting if the ultimate verdict did not account for the problem sufficiently.

In agreeing to settle the case, NCAA officials implicitly acknowledged that their case had been undermined, though they both defended their actions and seemed to criticize the judge for how he interpreted the NCAA's policy change.

"The settlement in this case is the result of restrictions placed on the NCAA by the court about how the Association could explain the bylaw and defend its rightful interpretation," Myles Brand, the association's president, said in a news release. "I have complete confidence that the NCAA enforcement staff acted properly and in compliance with NCAA bylaws with regard to Mr. Neuheisel's interviews."

In its own statement about the settlement, the University of Washington appeared to point a finger at its co-defendant. Washington officials remained confident of their legal position, the statement said. "However, during the final days of trial, events outside the university's control raised the serious threat of a mistrial or reversal. The university is pleased that the NCAA assumed responsibility to help resolve the difficult situation that had developed around changes in its procedural rules."

For his part, Neuheisel tried not to gloat, but was clearly elated. "I feel wholly vindicated," Neuheisel told reporters outside the courtroom, according to the Associated Press. "Obviously they're going to have their stories, too, but I feel like this is the best scenario. Nobody's nose gets bloodied."

"The legal system works," he added. "The players got together and found an amicable resolution. I'm thrilled to be moving on."

 

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