College Ordered to Pay Ex-Athletic Director $1.5 Million
By Eric Freedman
Green River Community College must pay its former athletic director $1.5 million for racial discrimination and defamation, the Washington Court of Appeals has ruled.
However, the three-judge panel trimmed about $500,000 from the original $2 million trial verdict, finding insufficient evidence for Michael McGraw’s wrongful termination claim.
Green River may ask the court to reconsider the decision, according to state Assistant Attorney Michael Lynch, who represents the college in the case.
In 1992, Green River hired McGraw, who is African American, as athletic director. In 1995, he also was named men’s basketball coach. He was fired in 1998 after a Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges (NWAACC) investigation found that a team member had failed to register for courses or pay tuition.
NWAACC sanctioned the college with a $2,500 fine, forfeiture of the games involved and McGraw’s suspension.
After the termination, the college released information that indicated McGraw had intentionally played the athlete, an allegation McGraw denied. He claimed the college used him as a scapegoat and treated the NWAACC investigation as an excuse to get rid of him.
A King County Superior Court jury awarded $500,000 for racial bias, $1 million for defamation and $506,375 for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. The trial judge also ordered the college to pay more than $100,000 for McGraw’s legal fees and court costs.
Green River maintained that McGraw was justifiably fired for using the ineligible player, according to John Ramsey, the college’s public information director.
The appeals court upheld the bulk of the verdict.
In a unanimous opinion by Judge C. Kenneth Grosse, the court cited testimony that the college treated McGraw more harshly than White coaches who committed similar infractions and that NWAACC had imposed relatively light sanctions against other community colleges for similar conduct.
Discriminatory behavior began during the hiring process and continued during McGraw’s years at Green River, according to the court. For example, the selection committee for the athletic director slot was directed to interview four “good candidates” but to hire the only Black applicant. And witnesses told how college officials “disparagingly referred to McGraw as an ‘affirmative action hire.’ “
Later, McGraw was removed from the high school outreach committee after he began heavy recruiting in predominantly African American areas of Tacoma and Seattle, the court said.
And it took several weeks for the college to take action after McGraw complained about racist messages written on the walls and carved into the woodwork around campus. “Eventually, after repeated inaction by the college and the continuing presence of similar types of messages, McGraw was forced to organize a plan himself to have such graffiti removed on a regular basis,” the court said.
But Lynch of the attorney general’s office said there was insufficient evidence of “racial animus on the part of the college. There were a few isolated comments by people who didn’t have management responsibilities.”
In rejecting the college’s defense to the defamation claim, the appeals court said McGraw provided substantial evidence that he had been unaware of the student athlete’s ineligibility until after the fact because other college officials had withheld key information from him.
Again Lynch disagreed, saying, “We believe there were sufficient facts to show he knew or should have known that the player was ineligible.”
McGraw’s wrongful discharge suit claimed he was fired in part for complaining about college fund-raising procedures, including the requirement that he raise money to cover a portion of his own salary. But that argument isn’t enough to show that the firing violated public policy, the court held.
“The internal financial code of a community college is not of general public concern and does not provide a clear mandate of public policy,” it said. “As a matter of law, GRCC’s fund-raising requirements did not violate a clear mandate of public policy.”
McGraw’s lawyer declined to discuss the case.
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