Lawyer: Rutgers' player pressured to drop Imus suit

Updated: October 19, 2007, 1:54 AM ET
Associated Press

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. -- A lawyer who represented a Rutgers University women's basketball player complained to the school that her coach pressured the athlete to drop a lawsuit against Don Imus over the radio host's sexist and racist remarks about the team.

Junior Kia Vaughn dropped her slander and defamation suit in September against Imus, who called Rutgers' players "nappy headed hos" after the team lost in the NCAA finals. A spokeswoman for the attorney said then that Vaughn wanted to focus on her education and basketball.

But in a Sept. 4 e-mail and an Aug. 17 letter sent to school officials before the suit was dropped, Vaughn's attorney, Richard B. Ancowitz, said the head coach, C. Vivian Stringer, and others put pressure on his client and other players not to seek legal action against Imus.

Vaughn told The Associated Press no one pressured her to drop the suit.

"Coach Stringer didn't pressure me into the lawsuit or out of it," Vaughn said Wednesday. "It was a personal decision, basically because I need to focus on school, and basketball and everything else.

"Coach Stringer, I love her. She's a motherly figure. I know that she would never tell me anything that would hurt me."

Vaughn filed the lawsuit against Imus and CBS in August, claiming the radio personality's sexist and racist comments about the team damaged her reputation.

Rutgers athletic director Robert E. Mulcahy III and Stringer's pastor, who helped facilitate a meeting between the team and Imus in April, also denied that Vaughn or other players were pressured to refrain from seeking legal action.

In his correspondence, obtained by The AP from Rutgers through a public records request, Ancowitz described a coach who seemed angry with Vaughn for pursuing the lawsuit and who intimidated other players and their parents into not suing.

"It seems quite clear that Coach Stringer and her surrogates continue to discourage both my client and my client's teammates from taking action to protect and/or enforce their legal rights," Ancowitz wrote in a Sept. 4 e-mail to the university's vice president and general counsel, Jonathan Alger.

In an Aug. 17 letter, Ancowitz described a telephone conversation between himself, Stringer, Vaughn and Vaughn's mother.

"She [Stringer] began by telling us and specifically Kia that the bringing of Ms. Vaughn's action was wrong and saying that she was angry," he wrote. The coach "accusingly told Kia it would have a negative effect on the coming basketball season."

The 20-year-old Vaughn disagreed, saying Stringer didn't tell her pursuing a lawsuit was wrong.

Although Ancowitz said he never intended for his correspondence to be made public, he stood by his comments Thursday.

"I honestly cannot negate what I have described in these letters because the events described therein are factual and accurate," he said.

He declined to elaborate, citing his respect for Vaughn's privacy and her desire for "peace and harmony."

Stringer did not respond to numerous requests for comment. Stacey Brann, Rutgers' associate director of athletic communications, said the coach was aware of the requests and was unavailable for comment.

Stringer's pastor, Rev. DeForest Soaries, said he attended a September meeting at the university with players, parents and Ancowitz, and that at no point did he or Stringer advise them to drop the lawsuit. That meeting was held before Vaughn dropped her suit.

Soaries said he'd talked with some of the players -- although not Vaughn -- and that they had been under the impression Imus would settle the suit quickly. He told them that might not be the case.

"It was important to me to counter the notion that this was a 'slam-dunk, never go to trial, we're going to settle and make a lot of money' situation," Soaries said.

Mulcahy, in two separate statements, said players were free to decide whether they wanted to sue Imus.

"We made it clear to the students that it was their choice," Mulcahy said. "To the best of my knowledge, the decision to drop the lawsuit was made by Kia [Vaughn] and her family."

Vaughn said she did not know of Ancowitz's correspondence to the school until Wednesday and did not know how he came to his conclusions. Vaughn described Ancowitz as "straightforward" and said he was clear about the risks of suing Imus.

In his Sept. 4 e-mail, Ancowitz said there were two, possibly three, students whose parents "have told me point blank that they want to pursue legal action but feel intimidated against doing so by Coach Stringer."

In his e-mail, Ancowitz also claimed several Rutgers officials told "a player" she would not be featured in Sports Illustrated if she joined the lawsuit. He didn't identify the player.

Brann denied that she or any team official made such a statement.

The team and Stringer earned widespread praise for their poise dealing with the comments of Imus, who became the target of protests and eventually was fired.

Soaries said he advised players that the statute of limitations on filing a lawsuit wouldn't run out until a year from Imus' April comments and that they might want to focus their attentions on winning a championship.

"If at the end of the season they decide, that they'd like to litigate, the statute of limitations gives them time to do that. That's what I said. I was more concerned about the timing of litigation than I was about the fact of litigation," he said.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press