Closing arguments made in Richardson's suit
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Nolan Richardson's lawyer says the former Arkansas basketball coach, in a way, has already won his discrimination lawsuit against the university, no matter how a federal judge rules in the monthlong trial that ended with closing arguments Wednesday.
"Either way, we believe that we have won this case," attorney John Walker said outside the federal courthouse. "We have won it in the court of public opinion."
U.S. District Judge William R. Wilson Jr., who heard 18 days of testimony, said Wednesday he will make a written ruling on the case as soon as possible.
Arkansas fired Richardson on March 1, 2002, after the coach said he would leave the university if it would buy out the remaining years on his seven-year, $7.21 million contract. Arkansas administrators say the remark indicated Richardson had lost faith in his program.
University attorney Phil Kaplan said during closing arguments and outside that court that Richardson's attorneys had not shown any examples of discrimination that led to his termination.
"There just wasn't anything that rose to a sufficiency of evidence and a quantum of proof to demonstrate that there actually was any kind of discrimination on a basis of race or because of an exercise of some First Amendment right," Kaplan said.
Kaplan told Wilson that the coach's firing was done for the right reasons, even if some might consider it harsh and Richardson might believe their were greater matters at stake. Walker countered by saying Richardson had been "lynched" and deserved more than $8 million to be made whole.
Invoking the 1957 Little Rock schools desegregation crisis, Kaplan said the nine students who integrated Central High School did so as they followed a higher calling, while Richardson's challenge to the university involved only the coach watching out for his own interests.
"Even if this court believes that the decision to terminate Richardson after 17 years was overly harsh, the evidence shows that the decision was not discriminatory, not retaliatory, but was within their sound business judgment," Kaplan said.
But Richardson said that he was fired because he had complained about racial issues and that the school violated his free speech rights. Walker told Wilson that Arkansas fired Richardson for no good reason.
"He was terminated by the university because he uttered statements that displeased individuals and because he complained about race discrimination," said Walker.
Walker also told the judge that Kaplan had insulted Richardson by saying the ex-coach was in the lawsuit for the money.
"He was lynched and should be made whole by this court and he is entitled to relief," Walker said.
Richardson seeks a total of $8.86 million, which would cover back pay, other lost compensation and $2 million in damages. Richardson said Wednesday he no longer wishes to return to his job because he doesn't want to displace current coach Stan Heath.
Richardson said outside the court that he didn't go through the trial for the money.
"I'm just glad that this is over," Richardson said. "I'm glad that I got the chance to come to court. My story will continue to be told. It won't be about money, it will be about kids who follow me."
After Kaplan finished his final argument, Wilson asked the university attorney if he had to find against all the defendants or could he find against one or two.
While Richardson sued the university, he also sued athletic director Frank Broyles, university system president B. Alan Sugg and chancellor John A. White. He sued them individually and in their capacity with the university.
Kaplan said that, to find against an individual and not the university, Wilson would still have to find that there was direct evidence of discrimination that led to Richardson's dismissal.
Kaplan said afterward he didn't read anything into Wilson's question and Walker didn't want to try.
"I think it would be presumptuous and I don't want to do anything to influence or inflame the court's response to what I consider to have been a very good case," Walker said.
Wilson asked Walker if he should reject testimony by Broyles, White, Sugg and seven members of the university system board of trustees that the decision to fire Richardson was made on Feb. 24, 2002, and not at a later date. The Feb. 24 date is key.
Richardson testified he was fired for complaining at a Feb. 25, 2002, news conference that he was treated differently because he is black -- not for saying two days earlier, after a loss at Kentucky: "If they go ahead and pay me my money, they can take the job tomorrow."
The university contends the buyout remark was the only reason it fired Richardson. Walker said Wilson should assess whether the decision was made on Feb. 24 and put the evidence in perspective.
"Our position is that the decision was made on March 1 or March 22," Walker said. "The evidence is that the decision was not made on Feb. 24."
Sugg reviewed Richardson's firing and denied the coach's appeal on March 22. Kaplan said Richardson may not have received official notice until March 1, but the decision was made Feb. 24.
"Either way, he was not going to be there anymore," Kaplan said. "The decision that was made on Feb. 24 in the late evening was that Coach Richardson would no longer be the head coach of Razorback basketball."
Walker told Wilson that Broyles displayed racial animosity toward Richardson and that Broyles and White were concerned with the former coach's propensity to speak out on racial issues.
Walker called Broyles the "decision-maker" for Richardson's firing, even though White was the only one who could recommend such action.
"Dr. White probably wasn't as much of a decision-maker as he would lead us to believe," Walker said. "He accepted the responsibility, but we all know in the real world that Dr. White does not have the influence, the status and the power at the University of Arkansas that Mr. Broyles has."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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