UPDATED: Thursday, 5:51 p.m. ET
The New York Times reported last night that Kentucky lefthander James Paxton, the highest-drafted player to return to college this year, sued UK on Wednesday, charging that athletic officials threatened to bar him from playing if he did not agree to meet with NCAA investigators, even though he was not told what rules he was accused of violating.
Paxton, the 37th overall pick in the 2009 draft by the Blue Jays, did not sign a pro contract before the Aug. 17 deadline and returned to Kentucky for his senior year. He missed time this fall with a minor knee scope and mononucleosis, but he returned to participate in workouts and team activities. The lawsuit says that Sandy Bell, the senior associate athletics director for student services in the UK compliance office, told Paxton that he must submit to an interview with an NCAA representative. The Lexington Herald-Leader reports that according to the lawsuit, Bell’s remarks gave Paxton reason to believe he would be suspended from the baseball team for some period of time whether he consented to the interview or not. The suit also says that athletic director Mitch Barnhart told Paxton’s attorney that Paxton would not be able to participate on the baseball team unless he agreed to the interview.
Paxton has hired Ohio lawyer Rick Johnson, who also represented former Oklahoma State lefthander Andy Oliver in his lawsuit against the NCAA, which was settled this fall—after an Ohio judge invalidated the NCAA’s "no agent" rule and restored Oliver’s eligibility. That rule (which was restored after Oliver settled his suit) could be at the crux of this case as well. Paxton is advised by the Scott Boras Corporation, and Kentucky’s compliance staff might be trying to determine if Boras handled negotiations with the Blue Jays on Paxton’s behalf this summer. In September, the NCAA signaled an apparent intention to step up its enforcement of the long-ignored no agent rule when it sent out a questionnaire to players that sought information about their relationships with advisers. Johnson objected to that tactic.
"It illegally and unethically seeks attorney-client privileged information, and it misstates the NCAA’s bylaws and what is required of student-athletes, who are not required to disclose this level of information, sign releases, etc., without any probable cause or due process," Johnson said in an e-mail to ESPN and BA columnist Jerry Crasnick.
Boras told Crasnick earlier this fall that he adheres to NCAA regulations by charging a fee to players that he advises in the draft.
"We are compliant with the NCAA rules by mandate," Boras said. "We have to go to families and charge them for information that we would otherwise not charge for. And we have to go through the bailiwick of having the parents deal with the teams through our counsel, which is crazy."
The peculiar thing about this case is that Paxton has filed his lawsuit before he has actually been suspended. Obviously, this is an unwelcome distraction for Kentucky’s baseball team, which is relying on Paxton to anchor one of the nation’s best weekend rotations.
UPDATE: I spoke with Johnson this afternoon, and he said he also believes this case is about the no agent rule and the NCAA’s questionnaire. But he doesn’t know for sure.
"The NCAA will not tell us why they want to talk to James, but I think it’s related to the questionnaire and I think it’s all related to the Andy Oliver case," Johnson said. "They’re going to go out to show people that they’re going to do what they want and it doesn’t matter what some Ohio judge says . . . They’re the last unregulated monopoly. As a self-governing entity, the NCAA doesn’t work. Its members are terrified of it, but they will look you straight in the face and say the NCAA is run by its members."
Johnson points out that the NCAA came in and asked to interview Paxton—Kentucky did not decide on its own to force him to answer questions. But Johnson claims Kentucky officials are breaking university rules by trying to enforce the NCAA’s agenda without giving Paxton due process.
"If they want to charge him with violating a rule, then in order to follow their code of conduct—which includes athletics and other extra-curriculars—they have to give him written notice," Johnson said. "So if they think he violated a rule, they’ve got to tell him."
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