Last month in New York state, a court ruling came down that received minimal attention, but could have serious implications in the coaching universe. In that case, Marist v. James Madison, a New York trial court judge ruled that James Madison and coach Matt Brady owed damages to Marist because Brady violated the terms of his contract by recruiting several players for James Madison that he'd also been recruiting at Marist.
Brady's old school, Marist, provided James Madison a list of 19 players that Brady could have no contact with upon becoming their coach. After his departure for James Madison, Brady is alleged to have continued to recruit four players that he'd been recruiting to Marist. One of those players, a Marist letter-of-intent signee, Julius Wells, has become James Madison's second-leading scorer. As James Madison has risen in the college basketball universe, Marist has fallen, going 1-29 last season.
By recruiting players that he'd been recruiting at Marist, Brady unquestionably violated the specific terms of his contract, which contained the following clause:
"In the event that the Employee terminates his employment with the College to accept another basketball coaching position, the coach agrees to turn over all program records and files and agrees to end any further contact with program recruits. In addition, the College will not permit any currently enrolled men's basketball student-athlete to transfer to the institution at which the coach will be employed. Coach also agrees that he will not offer a scholarship to a current Marist basketball player or to a prospective player being recruited to play at Marist."
In particular, the judge ruled that James Madison University was liable for "tortious interference" (when a party intentionally damages a contractual relationship) due to Brady's violation of his contractual provisions. Does that language sound familiar? It should. The Tennessee Titans sued Lane Kiffin for doing the same thing when Kiffin and USC hired away Titans running backs coach Kennedy Pola. You can read my legal analysis of that case here.
The lawsuit itself presents a unique procedural dynamic. Marist didn't sue because Brady left for James Madison, the university sued because after he left, he continued to recruit players that he'd been recruiting at Marist. In other words, the fundamental-breach of the contract -- the early departure for James Madison -- was permissible, but the comparatively minor breach of one particular section of the contract wasn't.
I can't recall ever seeing a coaching suit that focused on what can best be construed as minor breach of the contract (the recruitment) as opposed to the fundamental breach (the departure). Initially, I held off writing about the ruling in this case because I wanted to see what damages were assessed against James Madison for this violation (any damages against Brady would presumably be the obligation of James Madison, since he violated his contract with the knowledge of his employer). The two parties met last week but reached no consensus. They are not scheduled to meet again until the late fall, but the damages question isn't going to be resolved anytime soon.
So the question remains, how in the world do you assess damages in a case such as this? Who can reliably say what damages Marist is owed for what is, to be frank, a lawsuit over a coach competing for recruits with them. How can you determine the value of student-athletes on one basketball team as opposed to another? Also, how can you project how those players would have done if they'd picked Marist instead of James Madison? It's virtually impossible to reliably assess damages in a case such as this. Typically, in situations such as these where damages are difficult to assess, contracting parties have liquidated damages clauses inserted into the deal. That way if one party or the other breaches the contract then there's no obligation on a judge or jury to determine damages. The idea, a very reasonable one, is that these two contracting parties have a better sense of what the damages should be in the event one party breaches the contract than someone not party to the contract.
But where, as here, there is no liquidated damages clause, how in the world can a judge adequately determine what the liability should be?
Put simply, a judge can't.
Come down hard on James Madison and there might well be a significant deterrence factor in contracts such as these. All of a sudden, a school might have to research the detailed contractual provisions of a new coach before hiring him away. But coming down hard with a substantial damages claim would also lead to a long appeals process and it would likely be years until any resolution occurred. Come down with damages that are highly lenient and the entire legal process, already lasting a year to this point, becomes a farce. What's the point of suing a coach when the suit itself costs more than the potential recovery? Lenient damages will likely undercut any future clauses of this sort.
In addition to the difficulty of assessing damages, a suit of this nature also raises another interesting and systemic issue in the world of college athletics, why are lawsuits such as this so rare? Why do most schools simply sit and watch their prized contractual possessions (i.e. coaches) leave for another position without making a move to challenge that departure?
This doesn't happen in any other industry. If a prized contractual provision leaves in the world of television or radio or movies, lawsuits ensue immediately. Those contracts actually have teeth. But college coaching contracts are notoriously impotent, not even worth the paper they're written on.
After all, isn't every hire of a coach already under contract to another school tortious interference with an existing contract on its face?
Yes. It's not as if a school that hires away a coach isn't aware that a coach has a present job.
Yet, as an industry, even in this case, schools will not sue another school for breaking a coaching contract. It's virtually unheard of for a school to try and restrict a college coach from leaving or to sue for damages when that coach does leave (schools will, however, often sue to enforce buyout provision). But the underlying premise of the contractual violation is never touched.
Especially when It's this failure to sue that leads to perpetual free agency in the world of college coaching.
It's a strange dynamic, and one that, even in filing suit upon James Madison and Matt Brady, Marist upheld.
In the wake of this ruling, many have rushed to question whether or not this lawsuit augers a new, more combative, era in coaching contracts.
The answer? Probably not.
Two parties to a contract have always been allowed to negotiate in great detail about the particulars of their relationship. This means schools can ask for, and receive, all sorts of restrictive conditions in their contracts. That's one reason why coaching contracts take so long to finalize these days -- recall that Kentucky basketball coach Billy Gillispie never signed an "official" contract in the two years he spent at that school. Instead, the school relied upon a one page memorandum of understanding to govern the relationship. Most of the time parties enter into a nuanced and detailed dance about the particulars of their relationship. In this case, Coach Brady negotiated without legal representation, a tremendous error on his part that led to the lawsuit.
It's also important to note that coaches hold the balance of power in these early negotiations. They're the objects of attraction, the ones being pursued.
In fact, the coaches are so attractive that no contract they sign actually has any lasting impact. Even in this case, the lawsuit is likely a matter of principle instead of a matter of substantial damages. Welcome to 21st century college coaching, the only place where contracts are written in invisible ink. Ultimately the biggest surprise about this case is how surprised we all are to see any university anywhere seek to enforce any provision of the contracts they enter into with coaches.