WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Monday to referee a long-running legal fight between the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. and Nevada Las Vegas basketball Coach Jerry Tarkanian.
The case could result in slapping Tarkanian with a two-year suspension for alleged recruiting violations in the mid-1970s.
The legal issue is simple: Does the NCAA act as a government body when it regulates college sports?
The NCAA characterizes itself as a "private, voluntary association of nearly 1,000 public and private colleges and universities" whose mission is to police college athletics.
But the Nevada state courts concluded that the NCAA is in fact a "state actor." As such, it must comply with the constitutional demand that government employees may not lose a benefit without "due process of law."
If the NCAA is judged a private body and not a governmental agent, it need not comply with such stringent procedures in taking action against rule violators.
A ruling in this case, which may not come until next year, will say much about the power of the NCAA to enforce its sanctions.
According to court papers, allegations of recruiting violations against Tarkanian date back to 1972. After a lengthy investigation, the NCAA in 1977 ordered his suspension for two years as coach of the Running Rebels.
Tarkanian challenged the order in court and won a reprieve. A trial court later sided with the coach, ruling that the 2 1/2-year investigation was illegal because it relied on unrecorded interviews and disputed recollections. Tarkanian has been able to coach during all the litigation.
"In the circumstances of this case, this procedure does not comport with due process requirements," the state court said.
Last year, the Nevada Supreme Court voided the NCAA order and awarded Tarkanian $200,000 in legal fees.
Attorneys for the NCAA complained to the Supreme Court that Tarkanian benefited from a "home-court advantage" in the Nevada courts.
If state courts can use such an "idiosyncratic construction of the U.S. Constitution" to thwart enforcement of its rules, the NCAA will be stripped of its ability to fairly and forcefully set standards for intercollege athletics, the high court was told.
Last year, in a case involving the United States Olympic Committee and a San Francisco group which sponsored the "Gay Olympics," the Supreme Court said the USOC was a private organization even though it was chartered by Congress. By that logic, the NCAA should be considered private, too, the attorneys contended.
Oral arguments in the case of NCAA vs. Tarkanian, 87-1061, will likely be heard in October.