Georgia Tech case erodes coaches power

ESPN legal analyst Roger Cossack says a Georgia judge's decision might upset the power structure in intercollegiate athletics.

Updated: November 16, 2005, 6:12 PM ET
By Roger Cossack | Special to ESPN.com

I'm glad Bear Bryant isn't around for this one.

I can promise you one thing: The phone lines and e-mails that connect the most powerful athletic directors and coaches across intercollegiate sports are cooking today over a Fulton County judge's order earlier this week that suspended defensive back Reuben Houston must be reinstated to the Georgia Tech football team as well as to the university.

Georgia Tech's own athletic director, Dave Braine, says the decision will "send shock waves through college athletics." And he's right.

Houston, a two-year starter, was suspended this past summer because he was arrested and charged with being a member of a California conspiracy that's purpose was to sell about 100 pounds of marijuana, allegedly on Tech's Atlanta campus.

He first appealed his suspension through the university. While that appeal was pending, Houston was readmitted to the school and given the room and board privileges other scholarship athletes receive, but he was not allowed back on the football team. When his university appeal was denied by the Georgia Tech student office, Houston was asked to leave campus. He then appealed to the courts.

Although Judge M. Gino Brogdon expressed "wariness and trepidation regarding inappropriate judicial scrutiny with the operation ... of an educational institution," he nevertheless concluded that Houston's dismissal was "arbitrary and strikingly dissimilar to the school's treatment of other similarly situated athletes who have been accused of breaking the law."

Braine questioned Judge Brogdon's interpretation of the school's "treatment of other similarly situated athletes," saying no Georgia Tech athlete has ever faced a felony charge before.

Although Judge Brogdon's decision is limited to the facts that were presented to the court, I understand why Braine is concerned. This case is based on the proposition that all universities must treat all students alike in similar situations, and the clear implication in the judge's decision is that it didn't happen with Houston. Braine might be correct in saying that Tech has never had a football player charged with a felony, but I find it hard to believe that no member of the school's student body has ever faced a felony charge. The judge is saying that while Tech cannot treat a football player any better than any other student, it also cannot treat a player any worse.

During the past few years, we've regularly heard about college athletes in serious trouble for serious allegations: drugs, theft, rape and even murder. It always has been assumed, I guess, that the athletic director and the head coach have dictatorial power over the discipline to be meted out in those cases.

Some athletic directors and coaches take the position that all are presumed innocent until proved guilty, and so nothing should happen until the legal outcome is known. Others believe an arrest alone can be enough to kick the offender off the team. Unfortunately, I suspect the deciding factor between those two extremes often is the importance of the player to the team.

In the Georgia Tech case, Judge Brogdon is saying is that no longer can be the determining factor. There must be one standard, a reasonable one, and it must apply across the board.

Braine argues that it is a privilege rather than a right to play football for Tech and that the university has the sole authority to decide who plays and who doesn't. That line of thinking says that if players act in a way that is detrimental to the university or the team -- and clearly Georgia Tech believes being charged with agreeing to sell pot meets that definition -- then they forfeit their participation privilege.

Even if that is true, I don't believe it gives the university the choice about how to treat alleged offenders. Every state in the union says, for example, that driving is a privilege rather than a right; yet if they take away your driver's license, you can go to court to try and get it back.

Yes, this decision only relates to Georgia Tech, but the implications are dramatic. At the very least, it gives the courts the right to review how and why a student-athlete, or any member of the student body, is expelled.

It also indicates that the generalissimo role played by many college coaches might not be as set in concrete as we all thought.

How do you think the Bear would react to that?

Roger Cossack is ESPN's legal analyst. The Associated Press also contributed to this report.