Federal court denies Richardson's appeal

Updated: May 26, 2006, 2:09 PM ET
Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Nolan Richardson lost his appeal on his claim that he was fired as Arkansas basketball coach because he is black and outspoken, with the court finding Friday the school decided to dismiss him before an outburst at a 2002 news conference.

Richardson said after a hearing at the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that "they came after me" when he spoke out against racism at the Fayetteville school.

The appeals court said that by the time of Richardson's complaint, university administrators already wanted to fire the only man to coach Arkansas' basketball team to a national championship.

Richardson attorney John Walker said the coach was traveling and not available for comment.

University lawyer Scott Varady said the school "always said that coach Richardson was not terminated based on his race or the exercise of any First Amendment rights."

Walker said the coach's complaint against the university had a positive impact. He noted Friday that the university had hired Cynthia Nance, a black woman, to serve as dean of its law school.

"I would ask whether or not that would have happened ... if Mr. Richardson had not gone forward," Walker said. "When black people or people in general assert their rights under the law, we profit as a people."

Richardson was fired near the end of a 14-15 season, one of his worst at Fayetteville. Arkansas won the national championship in 1994 and was runner-up to UCLA in 1995.

The athletic department's fundraising arm is paying Richardson $500,000 a year through 2008 under terms of his buyout clause.

The court found that chancellor John White and athletic director Frank Broyles decided Feb. 24, 2002, to fire Richardson after the coach had said publicly the school could buy out his contract. The men said they took that to mean that Richardson had lost confidence in the program.

Richardson said their decision to fire him wasn't made until after he spoke about slave ships and alleged racial discrimination in a news conference the next day in Fayetteville: "See, my great-great-grandfather came over on the ship, I didn't. And I don't think you understand what I'm saying. My great-great-grandfather came over on the ship. Not Nolan Richardson.

"I did not come over on that ship, so I expect to be treated a little bit different. Because I know for a fact that I do not play on the same level as the other coaches around this school play on. I know that. You know it. And people of my color know that. And that angers me," Richardson said then.

In arguments before the 8th Circuit in St. Louis, attorneys for the school said White and Broyles offered Richardson a chance to resign with "dignity and grace," worried that Richardson's comments and continued presence at the school would affect recruiting.

"They [school administrators] ... believed these comments to have a negative impact on fan support and other aspects of the program. Likewise it undermined their confidence in Coach Richardson's leadership for the future," Judge Arlen Beam wrote.

"The record amply supports a conclusion that Richardson's statement had a detrimental impact on the effective functioning of the public employer's enterprise -- namely, the university's total athletic program," Beam wrote. "This public interest clearly outweighed any First Amendment privilege Richardson allegedly may have had in the making of the comment."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press