MARK A. NORDENBERG
Earlier this morning, five universities – the University of Pittsburgh, Rutgers University, West Virginia University, Virginia Tech, the University of Connecticut – filed a civil lawsuit in state court in Connecticut. The Atlantic Coast Conference, the University of Miami, and Boston College were named as defendants. The lawsuit seeks both injunctive relief and very substantial monetary damages for the harms associated with the ACC's ongoing attempts to raid the Big East and the possible defection of certain conference members. We took this action with determination but also with real regret. Since becoming aware of the ACC's surprising plans, and the apparent involvements of certain conference members, we have worked tirelessly on a wide range of fronts to deal constructively with the issues presented. Most of you are aware, for example, of the efforts that went into the meeting of conference athletic directors in Florida last month. And you also know that the football-playing members of the conference made a financial proposal that was designed to address the issue that the University of Miami said was at the core of its concerns. More recently we have reached out in almost every imaginable way. On Thursday of last week, for example, the president of the University of Connecticut, the president of West Virginia University and I traveled to Boston to meet with the president of Boston College. And on Friday of last week, the presidents of the University of West Virginia and I traveled to Syracuse to meet with the chancellor of Syracuse University. Many of us have reached out to our presidential colleagues in the ACC urging them to re-examine their actions, to engage in conversation with us and to jointly plan for a future that includes both a stronger ACC and a stronger Big East. Just two days ago, of course, the presidents of all five affected universities met with the president of the University of Miami in Washington D.C. Those contacts left us, unfortunately, with the clear and unanimous sense that continuing such conversations would not be productive. As a result, we reluctantly decided to seek legal protection. I want to emphasize that this is not a normal case of member withdrawal from an athletic conference, instead, as is more clearly detailed in our lengthy complaint, this is a case that involves broken commitments, secret dealings, breaches of fiduciary responsibility, of the misappropriation of conference opportunities, and predatory attempts to eliminate competition. And to underscore that point in a somewhat different way, as you probably noted when I listed the named defendants, Syracuse University is not among them, even though Syracuse has been considering a move to another conference. The reason for that distinction that based upon the information now available to us, we're not convinced that Syracuse was a participant in the pattern of wrongful conduct. In almost every one of the discussions mentioned earlier by me, we were told that a president or a chancellor has got to do what is best for his or her institution. In thinking about that statement I have two observations to share. The first is that in pursuing our own self-interests, whether individually or institutionally, we all should seek to respect relevant social norms, and we all are obliged to act in ways that do not extend beyond the limits of the law. Obviously, we believe that boundary was crossed here. The second is that I obviously am a chancellor myself. And in filing this lawsuit my presidential colleagues and I believe that we are doing what we need to do to protect our institutions. But beyond that it remains our goal to preserve the Big East Conference, its traditions and the many wonderful opportunities it has provided to thousands of student-athletes and to millions of fans. We've come a long way in a short period in University of Pittsburgh athletics. You see that in facilities like the Petersen Center, and the Duratz Center, and Heinz Field. Certainly you see it in the on-the-field and on-the-court performances of some of our most visible teams, and you see it in the achievements and in the growth of the individual student-athletes. It hasn't been easy getting to this point. Certainly, we've met a lot of challenges over the course of the last few years. Personally, I'd thought we'd earn the right to coast for a while but life didn't treat us that fairly. Instead we now have another challenge to meet and we're going to do just that, protecting our programs, sustaining our momentum and continuing to compete at the highest levels, and doing that in an honorable and principled way. Thank you.
What is the best-case scenario for the Big East and is it realistic to think you can have peaceful co-existence with Miami and Boston College?
MN: The best scenario from our perspective is the preservation and strengthening of the Big East Conference. We really do hope that the filing of this lawsuit, among other things, will cause people to take a step back, to think about their positions and to consider other approaches that might take them to whatever is their intended destination. With respect to the second question, maybe that question could be framed the other way. You might ask: Can the five schools peacefully co-exist when they believe member schools have basically launched an attack on the conference or participated in such an attack? Our answer would be: Yes we can and we hope we have that opportunity. And similarly, I don't see the filing of a lawsuit as being an insurmountable obstacle for either individuals or institutions looking at it from the other side.
Are you looking for a permanent injunction that would enjoin them from ever leaving the Big East? Or is it a temporary injunction?
MN: When it comes to the specifics of the litigation, those are questions I'll defer to our retained lawyers and that includes the different ways in which injunctive relief could work here.
Why would you want to keep members who clearly don't want to be a part of the conference?
MN: I'm not sure why they wouldn't want to be members of the conference and we're intending to give them the opportunity to re-think their positions on that issue.
But if they've had secret meetings, as you said, aren't they clearly intending to go in that direction?
MN: At least some of them clearly were interested in creating that option for themselves, and in some ways that goes back to a previous question. Life isn't simple, relationships at this point are not chummy, and so there are things that would have to be overcome.
Has Pitt made a mistake by the expenditure it put out with the new facilities and why isn't the Big East a part of the plaintiffs group?
MN: First, I do not believe that the University of Pittsburgh has made a mistake by investing in facilities and positioning itself to compete at the highest levels nationally in intercollegiate sports. And what I want to underscore is it remains our intention to occupy that position in terms of major college athletics. I wish the road right now was smoother but we're on the road we want to be on and we intend to keep traveling it. As for the second question, the Big East Conference is in a bit of a different position. It is an organization that has a wide-ranging membership, including currently the three institutions that are considering a move. We really didn't invite the conference to participate as a formal party and simply thought we had five institutions that had interests that were aligned and we ought to be exploring those alternatives ourselves.
What did Miami and Boston College promise to the conference that Syracuse did not?
MN: There is something on paper and we will provide everyone with a copy of the complaint, which does set forth in greater detail some of the allegations and you'll see that there is a distinction there.
Could you explain what laws were broken? Were there anti-trust or monopoly factors involved?
MN: We've retained very good, very experienced, very high-powered legal talent and they've put it all down on paper. I'll provide you with a copy of their work and let people who are part of the legal team respond to questions of that type.
How did President Shalala respond to your statements to her? And also it's been reported that legal action was prevented during that meeting.
MN: I would say the threat of legal action was not overtly presented at that meeting. Everyone involved in these dealings is an adult experienced professional. People know what might be possibilities. You don't have to beat them over the head. The meeting with President Shalala was a professional meeting dealing with difficult issues under a strained set of circumstances, but I thought it was a fine meeting in terms of the basic courtesies. It was a meeting in which we asked, as conference colleagues, for the opportunity to have further discussion once an offer from the ACC was presented to Miami, assuming one was coming. And among other things she was unwilling to commit to such continuing conversation, which may have been a fair position for her to take but also which suggested to us maybe there wasn't going to be much more to talk about.
This isn't the first time conferences have raided other conferences. In fact the Big East has done something along those lines. You said earlier that this is not normal. Does this situation differ from other situations? If not, are you being hypocritical?
MN: I would say first that I don't have first-hand knowledge of other conference realignments. I have read about some of those realignments in recent days and I do believe that in terms of the pattern of conduct here and in terms of some of the objects of this conduct, this is a distinguishable case and I don't believe there's anything hypocritical about our position.
Does the omission of Notre Dame as a plaintiff indicate this is primarily a dispute over football?
MN: The only plaintiffs in this action are the five universities who are football-playing members of the Big East and are not a part of the group of three. Notre Dame's not in that group so Notre Dame's not a plaintiff. Neither is Georgetown, Seton Hall, St. John's or Providence.
Is Syracuse closer to staying in the Big East than the other two schools?
MN: No. I would say the decision not to name Syracuse was not a reflection of any knowledge on our part about what decision they might make or what way they were leaning. Instead it did reflect our assessment of the information currently in hand about how all of this unfolded and the roles the universities did or did not play.
Is Syracuse still a candidate to leave?
Is this a first step towards a contingency plan? Or in filing this are you still going to make a step in case this fails?
MN: We really have been focusing on preserving and protecting the Big East as our goal. That really has been the focus of our action and it's been the focus of our thinking to this point.
When the other schools respond, will you start to look at other alternatives or stay this course?
MN: Our primary goal is preserving the Big East. We made the judgment that we could best advance that goal by bringing this action and we do hope there will be continuing conversations among the principals in the days and weeks ahead.
Is this coming athletic season in any jeopardy?
MN: No I don't think it puts this coming season in jeopardy involved.
Has there been any response to this action?
MN: We do expect the formal required response under the governing rules of procedure, but we also intend to reach out and to be receptive to continuing conversations outside of the formalities of the litigation itself.
Could those three schools simply agree to pay a penalty and leave anyway?
MN: Well, you ought to take a look at the complaint and see what kind of dollars we're talking about.
Why was the suit filed in Connecticut?
MN: We needed to file the lawsuit in a state where one of the plaintiffs was headquartered and where one of the plaintiffs had been harmed. Of course, the situation in Connecticut is an especially compelling one because they have made such significant investments in anticipation of UConn's move to being a football-playing member of the Big East. For a range of reasons then it seemed to be a sensible choice.
What's the worst-case scenario for Pitt if these three schools would leave?
MN: I haven't thought through all of the alternatives. Clearly we wouldn't be bringing this lawsuit if we weren't concerned about the disadvantages that could flow from that scenario, but also we have built up our programs to an extent that I think we're better positioned to deal with that possibility than we would have been five years ago for example, and in a sense that's true for the university as a whole. We're stronger than we were in the mid 1990s and that's helping us deal with challenging economic times and now we've got a challenge of a different type we've got a challenge of a different type.
Have you had any communication with any member of the Big 10?
MN: There has been a lot of speculation in the press about that and that seems to me to be speculation. Again, we really have been focusing on the Big East.
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