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Law School Case Brief

Nat'l Collegiate Ath. Ass'n v. Tarkanian - 488 U.S. 179, 109 S. Ct. 454 (1988)


Liability under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 attaches only to those wrongdoers who carry a badge of authority of a State and represent it in some capacity, whether they act in accordance with their authority or misuse it. 


Petitioner National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), an unincorporated association consisting of approximately 960 public and private universities and colleges, adopted rules governing member institutions' recruiting, admissions, academic eligibility, and financial aid standards for student-athletes. The NCAA's Committee on Infractions conducted investigations, made factual determinations, and was expressly authorized to impose penalties upon members that violated the rules. It was not authorized to sanction a member institution's employees directly. After a lengthy investigation of allegedly improper recruiting practices by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), a state university, the Committee found 38 violations, including 10 by respondent Jerry Tarkanian, UNLV's basketball coach. The Committee imposed a number of sanctions upon UNLV and requested it to show cause why additional penalties should not be imposed if it failed to suspend Tarkanian from its athletic program during a probation period. Facing demotion and a drastic cut in pay, Tarkanian brought suit in Nevada state court, alleging that he had been deprived of his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights in violation of 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983. Ultimately, Tarkanian obtained injunctive relief and an award of attorney's fees against both UNLV and the NCAA. Concluding that the NCAA's conduct constituted state action for jurisdictional and constitutional purposes, the Supreme Court of Nevada affirmed in relevant part.


Did the NCAA's participation in the events leading to Tarkanian's suspension constitute "state action?"




The judgment was reversed. The Supreme Court of the United States held that the NCAA's participation in the events that led to Tarkanian's suspension did not constitute "state action" prohibited by the Fourteenth Amendment and was not performed "under color of" state law within the meaning of § 1983. The NCAA could not be deemed to be a state actor on the theory that it misused power it possessed by virtue of state law, since UNLV's decision to suspend Tarkanian, while in compliance with the NCAA's rules and recommendations, did not turn the NCAA's conduct into action under color of Nevada law. Although it must be assumed that UNLV, as an NCAA member and a participant in the promulgation of the Association's rules, had some minor impact on the NCAA's policy determinations, the source of the rules adopted by the NCAA was not Nevada but the collective membership, the vast majority of which was located in other states. Moreover, UNLV's decision to adopt the NCAA's rules did not transform them into state rules and the NCAA into a state actor, since UNLV retained plenary power to withdraw from the NCAA and to establish its own standards. The NCAA's investigation, enforcement proceedings, and consequent recommendations did not constitute state action on the theory that they resulted from a delegation of power by UNLV, because: UNLV delegated no power to the NCAA to take specific action against any university employee, UNLV and the NCAA acted as adversaries throughout the proceedings, the NCAA enjoyed no governmental powers to facilitate its investigation, and the NCAA could not directly discipline Tarkanian, but could only threaten additional sanctions against UNLV if the university chose not to suspend him. Furthermore, even assuming the truth of Tarkanian's argument that the power of the NCAA was so great that UNLV had no practical alternative but to comply with the Association's demands, it did not follow that the NCAA was therefore acting under color of state law. 

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