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National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Tarkanian

    Brief Fact Summary.

    The NCAA investigated the recruiting practices of UNLV basketball team led by Plaintiff, the NCAA investigative committee found that UNLV officials had committed 38 rules violations, including 10 by Plaintiff. The trial court held that the NCAA’s actions violated Plaintiff’s due process rights because it was a “state actor.” The Nevada Supreme Court affirmed. NCAA petitioned the United States Supreme Court for review.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    The National Collegiate Athletic Association is not a state actor whose actions can trigger due process protections under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

    Facts.

    The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) (Defendant) adopted rules governing the way its member college universities could engage in recruiting of athletes. After a lengthy investigation into the recruiting practices of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) (Defendant) basketball team led by Coach Jerry Tarkanian (Plaintiff), the NCAA investigative committee found that UNLV officials had committed 38 rules violations, including 10 by Plaintiff. The university decided to reassign Plaintiff rather than fire him. Thereafter, Plaintiff filed for an injunction, alleging the NCAA violated his due process rights. The trial court granted Plaintiff the injunction which prohibited UNLV from suspending him from coaching on the basis that he had been deprived of procedural and substantive due process. Plaintiff then filed suit against UNLV and the NCAA for violating his due process rights. The trial court held the NCAA’s actions did violate Plaintiff’s due process rights because it was a “state actor.” The NCAA appealed. The Nevada Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the trial court and the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to review.

    Issue.

    Whether the National Collegiate Athletic Association is a state actor whose actions can trigger due process protections under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

    Held.

    No. The Nevada Supreme Court’s ruling is reversed. The National Collegiate Athletic Association is not a state actor whose actions can trigger due process protections under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

    Dissent.

    (White, J.): The majority incorrectly concluded that the NCAA and UNLV did not act jointly when Plaintiff was suspended. In previous cases, the Court has clearly held that private parties may be state actors in scenarios when the final act was carried out by a state official. In those cases, the Court found that the private party jointly engaged with state officials in the action. When the NCAA found at its own proceedings that Plaintiff had violated NCAA rules which were agreed to by UNLV, and which resulted in the suspension of Plaintiff, the NCAA had become jointly engaged with UNLV officials in the challenged action.

    Discussion.

    Under the guise of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is the distinction that “state action” is subject to scrutiny under the amendment’s Due Process Clause while private action is not. Congress codified the requirement in 42 U.S.C. § 1983, under which violations “under color of” state law are brought. In a typical case, the question is whether the State was sufficiently involved to treat the questionable conduct as “state action.” This can occur if the State creates the legal framework governing the conduct or if it delegates its authority to a private actor. Here, Plaintiff argues that the NCAA is a state actor because it misused power that it had gained when UNLV delegates some of its authority to adopt rules governing UNLV’s athletic programs and to enforce rules on behalf of the university. The Nevada Supreme Court thus held that UNLV and the NCAA were sufficiently tied together and jointly acted to deprive Plaintiff of his liberties. There is no question that UNLV is a state actor. When it chose to suspend Plaintiff from coaching, it was acting under the color of state law within the meaning of § 1983. In terms of the NCAA’s actions, the question is whether UNLV’s actions, in compliance with the NCAA rules and recommendations, turned the NCAA’s conduct into state action. UNLV is but one of over 900 institutions which make up the NCAA. While it is likely that UNLV had some input into NCAA’s policies, it competed with every other institution’s opinions and insights. Thus, the policies created by the NCAA were via the collective membership, not by the State of Nevada. State action may nonetheless exist if UNLV transformed NCAA’s rules into state rules and the NCAA into a state actor. UNLV’s decision to adopt the NCAA’s standards, and UNLV’s minor hand in their creation, does not mean that the NCAA was acting under the color of Nevada law when it promulgated standards governing athlete recruitment. Plaintiff additionally alleges that UNLV delegated power to the NCAA related to the NCAA’s investigation and resulting recommendations. However, the NCAA was never delegated specific power to take action against a UNLV employee. In reality, the NCAA is best viewed as a private actor at odds with the State when it represents the interests of its entire membership in an investigation of one public university. The only real power the NCAA possessed during the investigation was its ability to threaten sanctions against UNLV. Finally, Plaintiff argues that the NCAA enjoys so much power that member institutions must comply with its demands. That does not mean that the NCAA is a state actor.


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