A federal jury in Kansas ordered the NCAA yesterday to pay more than $22 million in back wages, penalties and legal fees to 1,900 assistant college coaches whose salaries were found to have been illegally restricted.
The penalty, which was tripled to $66 million under federal antitrust law, is by far the largest court assessment against the association, which regulates and administers major intercollegiate sports.
The verdict came after five years of often tortuous legal wrangling, in which the coaches contended that a blanket rule imposed by the NCAA in 1992 to restrict the salaries of certain assistant coaches to $12,000 for an academic year had stifled competition and deprived them of fair market wages.
The NCAA, which said yesterday that it was considering appealing the award, had established the salary limit for certain assistant coaches at the 300 major athletic programs that make up Division I college sports as a way of containing costs. The NCAA likened the lower-tier assistant coaches to graduate student teaching assistants in history or math, who traditionally work long hours for low pay and valuable experience.
In effect, the jury agreed with the contention of the coaches that the millions of dollars generated by college sports made any comparison to teaching History 101 misplaced.
The coaches had sought $30 million, basing their claim on estimates of what they would have earned in a fully open market. The $12,000 cap, they said, often amounted to less than a third of what others who did similar work at major universities were paid.
"We didn't want it to come to this," said Andy Greer, an assistant men's basketball coach at Northern Illinois. "They made a mistake, and now they're learning a very painful lesson -- that when people in your organization have concerns, you need to take some time and listen."
The NCAA has said the policy limiting salaries for the assistant coaches was lifted in 1995 after U.S. District Judge Kathryn H. Vratil ruled the restrictions violated antitrust law.
Yesterday's monetary verdict was the second major blow to the association this year, and another in a series of rulings that curtails its authority. In March, the NCAA agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle a lawsuit by Jerry Tarkanian, the basketball coach at Fresno State, who had contended that the association had persecuted him in applying its rules.
The NCAA's chief attorney, Elsa Cole, said yesterday's judgment would almost certainly be appealed. Cole said that financial reserves at the association were inadequate to the penalty assessed, and that revenue payments to schools for sports programs would have to be reduced if the order stands.
Neither the coaches who were involved in the suit nor the NCAA said they expected any immediate impact from yesterday's award, either in back pay or in some diminished level of collegiate sports funding. Several of the coaches who sued said their salaries had since risen to a level of parity with other assistant coaches, and that money was apparently found to pay them without reductions in coaching staffs.
The jury, which calculated the monetary award after hearing testimony from economists from each side, awarded $11.2 million to the basketball coaches, $1.6 million to the baseball coaches and $9.5 million to coaches in all the other sports -- all tripled. The NCAA was also required to pay the legal fees and costs of the plaintiffs, which some attorneys said could total an additional $5 million or more.
Pub Date: 5/05/98