A hearing has been set for Jan. 15 in the James Paxton vs. University of Kentucky case. The court also made it clear that Paxton’s status as a member of the Kentucky baseball team and a recipient of a grant-in-aid will not change, pending further orders of the court.
Earlier this week, Paxton’s lawyers filed a reply to Kentucky’s response to Paxton’s request for an injunction. One of his lawyers, Rick Johnson, who represented former Oklahoma State lefthander Andy Oliver in his lawsuit against the NCAA, e-mailed media that the Oliver case was about establishing the student-athlete’s right to counsel. Paxton’s case "hopefully will establish the student-athlete’s right to due process, and, specifically, the student-athlete’s right to be treated like every other student on campus" according to the code of conduct at the athlete’s school.
To me, this wrangling over due process feels like a stall tactic—and Paxton only suffers by delaying the inevitable. What is the endgame for Paxton’s side? Currently Paxton’s lawyers are claiming that Paxton cannot be withheld from competition without any written notice of the allegations against him. Even if the court agrees with that argument, it seems to me that the NCAA or the university can simply give Paxton official written notice accusing him of violating the no agent rule. And even if the court grants an injunction allowing Paxton to play, Kentucky’s coaches aren’t going to risk using him in game action as long as the restitution rule is still in place, subjecting the entire team to retroactive penalties if Paxton is later found to have broken rules. Paxton will spend the season in uniform on the bench. Maybe that is effectively a suspension, as Johnson argues, but courts don’t have the power to make lineup decisions for college baseball coaches. So while Johnson says this case is about due process, in the end it will wind up being about the no agent rule, just as the Oliver case was.
But Paxton’s camp probably does not have time to mount another successful challenge to the no agent rule before the season starts in February. When Oliver challenged the no agent and restitution rules, his legal proceedings began in the summer before his junior year, and the rules were struck down just weeks before the season began (though they were later restored as part of the settlement between the two sides). Any challenge to the rules now likely wouldn’t even reach trial until after the season is over.
As unjust as it might be for Paxton to face a penalty for breaking the same rule that just about every other drafted player also breaks, in the end his best chance to play in 2010—short of signing on with an independent league team—might be to give in to the NCAA and meet with its investigator. Neither the NCAA nor Kentucky has actually come out and said Paxton violated the no agent rule, but it’s pretty clear that he did, just like almost every other drafted player does (the only exceptions are those few who don’t have advisers at all, like Arizona State lefty Josh Spence). The difference is Paxton was unlucky; Paul Beeston, the Blue Jays’ interim president, threw him under the bus through the media, whether he did so intentionally or not (and I’m guessing he just failed to consider any NCAA eligibility ramifications). Paxton will have to hope his penalty is just a handful of games, along the lines of Jeremy Sowers’ six-game suspension for violating the no agent rule in 2002. A more severe punishment is a safer bet, however.
But that’s jumping ahead. It looks like nothing will happen in this case before Jan. 15, which means Paxton and the Wildcats get to spend the holidays hanging in limbo.
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