Cottrell v. Nat. Collegiate Athletic Ass'n

Decision Date01 June 2007
Docket NumberNo. 1050436.,No. 1041858.,No. 1050437.,1041858.,1050436.,1050437.
PartiesRonald W. COTTRELL and Ivy Williams v. NATIONAL COLLEGIATE ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION et al. Tom Culpepper v. Ronald W. Cottrell.
CourtAlabama Supreme Court

Thomas T. Gallion III of Haskell, Slaughter, Young & Gallion, LLC, Montgomery; J. Michael Rediker, Charles M. Elmer, and Michael C. Skotnicki of Haskell, Slaughter, Young & Rediker, LLC, Birmingham; and C. Delaine Mountain of Mountain & Baird, Tuscaloosa, for appellant/cross-appellee Ronald W. Cottrell and appellant Ivy Williams,

James J. Jenkins and A. Courtney Crowder of Phelps, Jenkins, Gibson & Fowler, L.L.P., Tuscaloosa; and Robert H. Rutherford and John C. Morrow of Burr & Forman, LLP, Birmingham, for appellees National Collegiate Athletic Association, Thomas Yeager, and Richard Johanningmeier.

John P. Scott and Joshua H. Threadcraft of Starnes & Atchison, LLP, Birmingham, for appellee/cross-appellant Tom Culpepper.

STUART, Justice.

Ronald W. ("Ronnie") Cottrell and Ivy Williams sued the National Collegiate Athletic Association ("the NCAA"), Tom Culpepper, and others alleging defamation, false-light invasion of privacy, negligence, wantonness, and civil conspiracy. The only claim that was presented to the jury was Cottrell's defamation claim against Culpepper. The jury returned a verdict for Cottrell in the amount of $6 million in compensatory damages and $24 million in punitive damages. Culpepper then filed a renewed motion for a judgment as a matter of law and a motion for a new trial. The trial court granted Culpepper's motion for a new trial. Cottrell and Williams appeal; Culpepper cross-appeals.


Cottrell and Williams are former assistant football coaches at The University of Alabama ("The University"). The University is a member of the NCAA; a nonprofit, unincorporated association whose members include "virtually all public and private universities and 4-year colleges conducting major athletic programs in the United States." NCAA v. Tarkanian, 488 U.S. 179, 183, 109 S.Ct. 454, 102 L.Ed.2d 469 (1988). The NCAA is governed by its member institutions, and one of its main goals is

"`to maintain intercollegiate athletics as an integral part of the educational 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.'"

488 U.S. at 183, 109 S.Ct. 454. The bylaws of the NCAA provide rules for the operation of a member institution's athletic programs, including recruitment and eligibility of prospective student-athletes and student-athletes, the salaries and the benefits of coaches and athletic staff, and the conduct and level of interaction between alumni and "athletic representatives" (better known as "boosters") of a member institution, on the one hand, and prospective student-athletes and enrolled student-athletes, on the other. As a member of the NCAA, the institution and its employees, student-athletes, alumni, and athletic representatives agree to comply with the NCAA rules and to submit to the NCAA's rule-enforcement process. If the NCAA investigates an alleged rule violation by a member institution, the member institution and its employees, student-athletes, alumni, and athletic representatives are required by NCAA rules to cooperate fully with the investigation into and the resolution of the alleged rule violation. Gene Marsh, the faculty athletic representative at The University from 1996 to 2003, explained the role of the institution and its representatives in the NCAA investigative process, stating: "[F]ull cooperation [with the NCAA rule-enforcement process] is not a strategy, but a duty if [an institution] chooses to remain a member of the NCAA."

The NCAA has two groups that are responsible for resolving an alleged rule violation committed by an institution. The enforcement staff1 investigates the alleged rule violation, charges a member institution with a specific rule violation, and essentially prosecutes the case before the committee on infractions ("COI").2 The COI conducts a hearing to adjudicate the charge, and it imposes a penalty if it finds that a rule violation occurred.

When an alleged rule violation is reported to the NCAA, the enforcement staff investigates. Initially, the enforcement staff sends an investigator to the member institution to determine if the alleged rule violation can be substantiated. The investigator interviews the individual who has alleged the rule violation and any other persons who may have knowledge of the alleged rule violation. The investigator then reports his or her discoveries, which may support charges of additional rule violations by the member institution, to the enforcement staff, which determines whether the information adequately establishes that the member institution has violated a NCAA rule or rules. If the enforcement staff believes that the findings of the investigator support a charge of a rule violation or violations by the member institution, the enforcement staff sends a letter of preliminary inquiry to the member institution. This letter notifies the member institution that a preliminary investigation of alleged rule violation will be conducted. This phase of the rule-enforcement process involves extensive interviewing by the enforcement-staff investigator of employees of the institution, student-athletes, and any other individuals who may have knowledge of the alleged rule violation. If this inquiry indicates that the allegations may be meritorious, a letter of official inquiry ("LOI") issues to the member institution, detailing the facts surrounding the alleged rule violation and the specific rule or rules the enforcement staff believes the institution, its staff, alumni and/or athletic representatives have violated. A LOI may also be sent to various employees or athletic representatives of the institution who are alleged to have involvement in the rule violation. The institution and other recipients of a LOI file a response with the NCAA, explaining their positions on each alleged rule violation.

After the recipients of the LOIs have responded, the enforcement staff meets with them. This conference provides an opportunity for all parties to explain their positions on each violation. If the enforcement staff determines that a party's response adequately establishes that an alleged rule violation did not occur or that there is insufficient evidence to pursue the alleged rule violation, the enforcement staff can dismiss the charge. After the conference, the enforcement staff prepares a case summary, which sets forth the charged rule violation and the positions of the enforcement staff, the institution, and other recipients of LOIs with regard to each charged rule violation. The case summary is then submitted to the COI in preparation for the hearing. Essentially, this case summary details the alleged rule violation the enforcement staff charges against the member institution, its staff, and/or its athletic representatives.

The COI conducts a hearing at which all parties present their positions. Opening statements are made by each party. The enforcement staff then presents each charge and its evidence. The institution and any affected employee, staff member, or representative of the institution then presents evidence as to why the charge lacks merit. Members of the COI ask questions of the parties involved at the hearing to develop the evidence. After each charge is fully addressed, each party presents a closing argument to the COI. The COI adjourns the hearing, deliberates, and returns with findings of fact with regard to each charged rule violation and a determination of the penalty to be imposed.

NCAA rules require that the investigation of alleged rule violations by the enforcement staff and the proceedings of the COI be conducted with confidentiality. The NCAA investigator, the member institution, and others involved in the investigation are required to maintain confidentiality throughout the entire process. Bylaw 32.1.4 of the NCAA Division I Manual, provides:

"The cooperative principle imposes an affirmative obligation on each member institution to assist the NCAA enforcement staff in developing full information to determine whether a possible violation of NCAA legislation has occurred and the details thereof. An important element of the cooperative principle requires that all individuals who are subject to NCAA rules protect the integrity of an investigation. A failure to do so may be a violation of the principles of ethical conduct. The NCAA enforcement staff will usually share information with the institution during any investigation; however, it is understood the staff, to protect the integrity of the investigation, may not in all instances be able to share information with the institution."

(Emphasis added.)

When the COI issues its findings of fact and penalty determinations, it announces the decision via a press release and a published "Infractions Report." The press release and the report identify the member institution, but do not include the names of any staff members or athletic representatives who have been found to have violated a rule. The release and report may, however, refer to an individual by his or her position, such as "recruiting coordinator." The ruling of the COI may be appealed by any party to an appeals committee. The decision of the appeals committee is final.

The evidence submitted at trial indicated that The University had been investigated by the NCAA, charged with rule violations, and penalized on two prior occasions before 2000. In 1995, the NCAA had investigated allegations that a prospective student-athlete had received money in exchange for signing a scholarship to play football at The University and that after the student-athlete enrolled at The University he had received special treatment in securing a loan from a bank at which an athletic...

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