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Demoted men’s and women’s squash teams file lawsuit against Brown, seek reinstatement of varsity status

Members allege that University concealed discussions of demotions from athletes, coaches, argue breach of contractual agreement

Twelve members of the University’s men’s and women’s squash teams filed a lawsuit against the University in federal court Aug. 17, after the teams were among 11 that were demoted from varsity to club status in May as part of the Excellence in Brown Athletics Initiative. The teams seek reinstatement of their varsity status.

Led by plaintiff and men’s squash team member Grant Sterman ’22, the “Association for the Reinstatement of Brown Squash” alleges that the University made a contractual promise to team members when they were in high school claiming that if they chose to attend Brown University, they would play on either the men’s or women’s varsity squash teams.

Hearings are scheduled in the United States District Court of Rhode Island for Dec. 7 and 8, according to one of the plaintiff’s attorneys, Stacey Nakasian. Chief Judge John J. McConnell ’80 will preside over the case.

Nakasian said in an interview with The Herald that it “is well-settled law that when a university makes a specific promise to students that it's enforceable, and that's the basis for our claim here.” She added,“Brown knew that (these players) had opportunities to play for other top schools and asked them instead to commit to Brown, which they did, and they gave up those opportunities.”

The University has disputed the claims of the lawsuit and has moved to dismiss the case, University Spokesperson Brian Clark wrote in an email to The Herald.

“Brown is proud of the community spirit that has defined its squash program through the years, and the University’s decision to transition squash to a club sport is consistent with a national trend of offering the program as a strong co-curricular experience,” Clark wrote. 

“We expect to make a strong case in next month’s federal court hearing that all counts should be dismissed on multiple grounds, including the fact that courts have recognized that universities must retain the ability to make decisions regarding their academic and athletics programs,” Clark wrote.

The Association is made up of students who received either a recruitment offer or an offer of support from Brown’s head squash coach Stuart leGassick. According to the complaint, the Association’s members agreed to attend Brown under the assumption that they would be playing intercollegiate varsity squash, and declined recruiting offers from other schools as a result. 

Members believe the University did not meet their end of the agreement. 

The complaint alleges that the University “concealed from the Association’s Members that it was considering the elimination of its varsity squash teams,” and failed to disclose the possibility of the team’s elimination to leGassick, who continued to actively recruit prior to its announcement.

“Brown did not inform the Brown squash coaches about the school’s intention to terminate the squash programs until immediately before the announcement to the student-athletes, effectively using the coaches as unwitting accomplices to help conceal the school’s intent,” the complaint states. 

In a motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s claims filed Oct. 31, the University argued that there was no fraudulent or negligent misrepresentation in their decision-making given that the Association’s members were recruited well before the University’s decision to demote the squash teams to club status, which the plaintiffs claim in their complaint was after January 2020. 

The University has a limited number of recruitment spots used to secure the admission of incoming first-year and transfer athletes. While these players were in high school, they were in communication with coaches from the squash programs at several universities, including Brown, who promoted the ranking of the squash team and its competitiveness as a program in seeking to attract the players, according to the complaint.

According to the lawsuit, leGassick — who was also allegedly unaware of the University’s efforts to review the varsity status of the squash teams — wrote in an early 2019 email to a first-year Association Member, “I hope very much you will choose to study and compete on the Varsity Squash team.” 

Based on this email, the University allowed leGassick and other coaches of eliminated teams to encourage students to commit to Brown under the assumption that they would be playing on a varsity team, the complaint states. Recruited players in the Association were required to accept the offer in the spring or summer of their junior year of high school and notify other schools of their commitment to Brown. 

The University argues that contrary to the plaintiffs’ claim, the communication between leGassick and recruited players do not serve as binding contracts that would require the school to offer each Association member the opportunity to play varsity squash for four years, according to the University’s motion to dismiss the complaint. The claim of a breach of contract relating to a college’s recruitment practices is unprecedented in court, according to the motion.

“At most, what Plaintiffs received was a promise that they would be admitted to Brown if they maintained the academic and social record presented to Brown in their application materials, as they all were,” according to the motion. 

In the fall of their senior year of high school, recruited players received a “Likely Letter” from the University informing them that they should expect to be admitted to Brown in the early decision round, according to the complaint. 

“Supported” players in the Association — distinct from the class of recruited players — were given a letter of recommendation from leGassick if they applied to Brown, in place of a formal likely letter. 

In making these decisions, the Association’s members were unaware that Brown was considering cutting varsity teams and hiring outside consultants to review the makeup of the sports programs in 2018. According to the complaint, the review was concluded during the 2018-19 academic year, and by the spring of 2019, Brown knew that it would likely be demoting a number of varsity teams, including men’s and women’s squash. 

The demotion of 11 teams followed President Christina Paxson P’19’s creation of a Committee on Excellence in Athletics in January 2020, which was tasked with developing “a proposal with recommendations to determine the numbers and identities of varsity and highly competitive club sports at Brown which accommodate students’ athletic interests and abilities,” according to the complaint. 

The University noted in their Oct. 31 motion that there are common law doctrines that give “educational institutions wide discretion in deciding how best to provide an education to their students based on rational policy determination,” according to the motion. These doctrines apply to academics but also extracurriculars which include sports programs, and thus, the University believes that the Association’s claims should be dismissed.

The University also argues that there is no recognized fiduciary duty between “educational institutions and its students in the context of intercollegiate athletics,” according to the motion. If so, the University points out that this would give student-athletes the ability to take legal action against a college for minor issues such as training equipment.

The Association’s members had no prior knowledge of the review and its findings and continued to discuss the 2020-21 season with the University and squash coaches prior to the May 28 announcement. 

In an email announcing the Excellence in Brown Athletics Initiative, Paxson wrote that the timing of the announcement to demoted athletes gave students and recruits enough time to consider pursuing recruitment at or transferring to another institution.

But the Association’s members argued in the complaint that this statement was not true: By May 28, they claimed, no other Ivy League schools had available recruitment slots for the 2020-21 academic year, and had very few recruitment slots open for the 2021-22 academic year. 

The Association’s members said they were “harmed” by this decision, and said in the complaint that Paxson and Director of Athletics Jack Hayes “manipulated this timing intentionally and/or with complete disregard for the best interests and well-being of the Association’s Members.” 

Due to Brown’s alleged failure to uphold its recruitment promise of allowing students to play varsity squash and its concealment of the possibility of demoting the team’s varsity status, the Association is seeking an enjoinment of Brown’s decision, the follow-through of its recruitment obligations and other forms of relief, including for compensatory and punitive damages and attorney’s costs. 

The University reiterated their defense in an additional Nov. 9 opposition to an amended motion for preliminary injunction filed by plaintiffs Sept. 1. “While Plaintiffs’ motion would fail regardless of COVID-19, the pandemic makes Plaintiffs’ demand for immediate relief even more misguided,” they state in their opposition. “Simply put, it is exceedingly unlikely that any intercollegiate squash will be played at any point this academic year. As a result, Plaintiffs will suffer no irreparable harm if a preliminary injunction is denied, and any injury they could possibly claim in the future could be addressed by a later-issued permanent injunction or a damages remedy, if warranted, following a final resolution of this case.”

In their motion to dismiss, the University recognized the Association’s members' commitment and investment in playing squash, as well as their disappointment in the University’s decision to demote the two teams. 

“But each disappointment that we experience in life does not give rise to a viable cause of action or the need for judicial intervention,” the University’s motion states.

Clarification: A previous version of this article did not include the University’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit after the initial complaint was filed in August nor their opposition to an amended motion for preliminary injunction filed by plaintiffs Sept. 1. The article has been updated to cite portions of their defense.


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