In National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) v. Tarkanian (1988), the U.S. Supreme Court held that threatened NCAA sanctions against the head basketball coach of a public university did not constitute state action, even though the university was a member of the NCAA, and thus the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s actions did not violate the coach’s civil rights. In light of the potential ramifications that Tarkanian has for the relationship between institutions of higher education and the NCAA with regard to intercollegiate athletics, this entry reviews the case in detail. Tarkanian is noteworthy, because although the NCAA was ultimately unsuccessful in its attempted disciplining of the coach, the case appears to limit the ability of individuals to sue the NCAA for violation of their civil rights, because the National Collegiate Athletic Association is not a “state actor” whose actions would trigger protections of due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. Moreover, although federal actions cannot be filed, nothing prevents states from permitting such claims under their own laws.
Facts of the Case
Jerry Tarkanian was hired as the head basketball coach at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) in 1973. He was also a professor of physical education at the same campus.
The NCAA is an unincorporated association, which at that time had approximately 960 members, including nearly all public and private universities and four-year colleges with major athletic programs in the United States. One of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s basic policies is to “maintain intercollegiate athletics as an integral part of the education program and the athlete as an integral part of the student body, and by so doing, retain a clear line of demarcation between college athletics and professional sports.” In an effort to promote this policy, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has adopted rules or “legislation” governing the conduct of the programs of its members. The NCAA’s rules apply to a variety of issues, including academic eligibility, financial aid, and recruiting of students. When members join the NCAA, they agree to abide by and enforce the association’s rules.
In 1972, the NCAA notified the UNLV that it was initiating a preliminary inquiry into the university’s athletic recruiting practices. After three years, the NCAA decided an “Official Inquiry” was needed and instructed the UNLV to investigate a series of allegations, many of which implicated basketball coach Tarkanian.
When officials at the UNLV conducted an investigation, they concluded that Tarkanian was innocent of any wrongdoing. However, the National Collegiate Athletic Association convened a four-day hearing at the UNLV at which university officials challenged the credibility of the NCAA’s informants with regard to the alleged recruiting violations. The NCAA’s Committee on Infractions ultimately found that officials at the UNLV committed 38 rules violations, including 10 by Tarkanian, one of which was his lack of full cooperation with the investigation.
As a result of its investigation, the committee proposed sanctions, including a two-year probation for the university and a request for it to show cause as to why the UNLV should not suffer greater penalties if officials failed to discipline Tarkanian by removing him from his coaching position during the two-year probation. In response, UNLV officials determined they had three options: reject the National Collegiate Athletic Association sanctions and risk heavier penalties, including a longer probation; accept the NCAA sanctions and reassign Tarkanian, all the while believing that the NCAA was wrong; and withdraw from the NCAA completely. The president of the UNLV chose to pursue the second option.
In response, Tarkanian filed for an injunction in state court, alleging that the NCAA deprived him of property and liberty without due process. The trial court enjoined the UNLV from suspending Tarkanian on the basis that he had been deprived of both procedural and substantive due process.
Tarkanian then filed suit against the university before amending his filing to include the NCAA. A trial court ruled that because the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s conduct constituted state action for jurisdictional and constitutional purposes, the university was forbidden to take any other action against the coach. On further review, the Supreme Court of Nevada, agreeing that the NCAA engaged in state action, affirmed that because the NCAA violated Tarkanian’s substantive and procedural due process rights, the association could not enforce the sanctions that it had intended to impose on the coach. Dissatisfied with the outcome, the NCAA appealed, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Tarkanian never missed a day of work during the course of the litigation, because the trial court had enjoined the university from suspending him from coaching.
The Supreme Court’s Ruling
In an opinion authored by Justice Stevens, the Supreme Court, in a five-to-four judgment, reversed in favor of the NCAA. As described by the Court, at issue was whether the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s conduct constituted state action. At the outset, the Court rejected Tarkanian’s assertion that the NCAA was a state actor because it misused the power that the UNLV, a state actor, had conferred on it. Instead, the Court decided that the NCAA was a private party that could only recommend that its members take actions such as sanctioning coaches. The Court explained that insofar as officials at the UNLV retained the authority to withdraw from the NCAA, the association was not acting under color of Nevada law when it created rules governing recruitment, eligibility, and academic requirements. While the UNLV may have played a minor role in creating some of the National Collegiate Athletic Association legislation, the Court rejected the notion that it actions were sufficient to have made the NCAA a state actor.
The Supreme Court also pointed out that the NCAA had no governmental assistance to further its investigation, because it lacked subpoena power, had no way to impose contempt sanctions, and could not have imposed sovereign authority over any individual. In this regard, the Court observed that the only power that the NCAA had was to threaten the UNLV with sanctions, the greatest of which would have been to expel the UNLV from NCAA membership. Moreover, the Court noted that insofar as the UNLV and the NCAA were adversaries throughout all the proceedings, it would be difficult to describe the association’s behaviors as those of a state actor.
The Supreme Court also rejected Tarkanian’s argument that the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s power was so great that the UNLV had no real choice but to comply with its sanctions and recommendations. The Court disagreed, reasoning that even if the NCAA could impose its will on a state actor such as the UNLV, it did not follow that the NCAA operated under color of state law.
The dissent, written by Justice White, maintained that because the NCAA had hoped to have Tarkanian suspended for violations of association rules, which the UNLV had accepted as a member of the association, the NCAA and the university acted jointly. In addition, the dissent acknowledged that in other cases, the Supreme Court recognized that private parties became state actors when they acted jointly with state officials. Subsequently, the Court reached this outcome in Brentwood Academy v. Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (2001), wherein it found that a state association in a K–12 setting that imposed sanctions on a nonpublic school had engaged in state action. The dissent focused on the fact that the UNLV contractually agreed to carry out its athletic program in accordance with the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s rules.
Rounding out its analysis, the dissenting justices commented that the UNLV had allowed the NCAA to conduct the hearings that were found by the Nevada Supreme Court to have violated Tarkanian’s right to procedural due process. In addition, they remarked that the UNLV agreed to be bound by the results of the NCAA hearings, doing more than giving a mere “promise to cooperate” with the association. The dissent was convinced that because the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s determinations that Tarkanian violated its rules were made at NCAA-conducted hearings, all of which the UNLV agreed to in its membership agreement, and which resulted in Tarkanian’s suspension, this meant that the National Collegiate Athletic Association was jointly engaged with UNLV officials as a state actor.
In sum, the Supreme Court’s later holding in Brentwood Academy v. Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association casts some doubt on the proposition that the NCAA was not a state actor. Even so, because Brentwood can be distinguished from the UNLV case because it was set in K–12 education, Tarkanian remains an important case in the world of higher education, because it addresses the boundaries of the relationship between the NCAA and its member institutions.
Goplerud, C. P., III. (1991). NCAA enforcement process: A call for procedural fairness. Capitol University Law Review, 20, 543–650.
Brentwood Academy v. Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, 531 U.S. 288 (2001), on remand, 262 F.3d 543 (6th Cir. 2001), reh’g en banc denied, cert. denied, 535 U.S. 971 (2002).
National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Tarkanian, 488 U.S. 179 (1988), on remand, 810 P.2d 343 (Nev. 1989), appeal after remand, 879 P.2d 1180 (Nev. 1994).