College basketball coaches jump in on affirmative action

November 2, 2015

Hundreds of college basketball coaches asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday to preserve affirmative action in university admissions, writing in a friend of the court brief that they have seen the benefits of a diverse student body not just for minorities but for the other students who come to know them.

A group of 285 men's and women's coaches joined their professional associations in filing an amicus brief in Fisher v. University of Texas, which is being heard by the nation's highest court for a second time this fall.

''Many of us have competed against each other on the court, but we join together here,'' the coaches wrote. ''We understand - from our work every day - the value that diversity and increased perspectives give our student-athletes and the campus community as a whole.''

The list of individual signatories includes current and former coaches, white and black, of men's and women's teams at schools large and small. Among them are Geno Auriemma, the 10-time NCAA champion with the University of Connecticut women's team; Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, a five-time NCAA champion; Penn State women's coach Coquese Washington, the president of the Women's Basketball Coaches Association; broadcaster and former coach Dick Vitale; and former Georgetown coach John Thompson.


''Almost all of us know, firsthand, the difficult and challenging areas that still exist in this country, often in urban environments; some of us are from those areas personally,'' the coaches wrote. ''We are not writing as dilettantes or tourists. We live this life.''

The case was brought by Abigail Fisher, a white woman who was denied admission to Texas' flagship campus in Austin. Fisher was passed over for a spot among the 25 percent of the class reserved for special scholarships and people who meet a formula for personal achievement that includes race as a factor.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals originally upheld the university's admissions process, and in 2013 the Supreme Court voted 7-1 to send the case back to the lower court for another look. The conservative-leaning federal appeals court in New Orleans again upheld the university's admissions policy.

The coaches asked the court to affirm the circuit court decision lest their teams become outposts of diversity in otherwise segregated schools.

''Although sports are powerful symbols, they are not enough by themselves to change a society,'' the coaches wrote.

The brief was submitted by two Boston law firms on behalf of the individual coaches as well as the National Association of Basketball Coaches; its women's counterpart, the WBCA; and the National Association for Coaching Equity. Attorney Matthew Henshon was a member of the 16th-seeded Princeton basketball team that came within one possession of an unprecedented upset of Thompson's top-seeded Georgetown in the first round of the 1989 NCAA tournament.

Together, the coaching associations represent more than 7,500 coaches representing ''thousands of years of collective experience teaching, coaching and advising student-athletes at all levels of the game.''

The brief is sprinkled with stories from the coaches' careers in which, they argue, the integration of their teams helped foster their role as educators. It also cites other examples of sports serving as a catalyst of racial progress, from South Africa's victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup to President Gerald Ford standing up for a black teammate when Georgia Tech refused to play against an integrated Michigan football team.

''Our occupation gives us a unique perspective on the challenge facing this court today,'' the coaches write. ''We stand with one foot in the halls of academia, and another in the urban areas where opportunity is too often lacking.''

Acknowledging that they are often the public face of their schools, the coaches told the court that they were not arguing for personal benefit; regardless of the court's decision, they will continue to seek out the top players regardless of race.

''But we know that an adverse decision in this case will hurt our players, making them less connected to and more isolated from their university communities,'' the coaches said. ''And it will hurt the communities themselves, as diverse viewpoints and interactions will be fewer in number.''


Jimmy Golen covers sports and the law for The Associated Press.