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Jackson State May Pursue Legal Action Against Grambling, SWAC

JACKSON, Miss.—Jackson State has asked the Mississippi attorney general to help it explore legal action against Grambling State and perhaps the Southwestern Athletic Conference to recover as much as $600,000 lost when Grambling’s football team refused to travel to Jackson State’s homecoming game.

Documents obtained through an open records request show that Jackson State has been pushing the Mississippi attorney general’s office for five months to pursue legal action, The Clarion-Ledger reported Sunday.

In a Nov. 5 email to Deputy Attorney General Onetta S. Whitley, Jackson State interim counsel Matthew Taylor wrote, “What JSU will likely need is guidance on the procedural process to have AG approval to pursue litigation against Grambling and the SWAC.” He also asked for a public statement of support from Hood’s office: “We need to have our JSU family ensured that the university is acting in good faith and with the full support of the AG’s office.”

The university’s persistence and the newspaper’s inquiries have led Attorney General Jim Hood to review the plea for help, the paper reported.

Grambling’s players boycotted the Jackson State game because of issues including Grambling’s run-down facilities, long bus trips to road games and personnel decisions.

Jackson State’s vice president of finance, Michael Thomas, said losing the homecoming game money has put the Mississippi school’s budget out of balance for the first time in years.

The Institutions of Higher Learning requires a balanced budget each year, and Jackson State has had one “for a few years now. For the first time in years, JSU is requesting from IHL an exception to this policy,” he said.

Ticket refunds accounted for about $475,000 of the estimated $540,000 to $600,000 total, Jackson State officials wrote SWAC officials in an email on Nov. 1.

According to the documents, a Nov. 8 statement from SWAC Commissioner Duer Sharp said Grambling must pay Jackson State $50,000 and play JSU in Jackson each of the next three seasons.

But the $50,000 will be “taken out of future conference distributions,” Sharp said in the statement, which was not public.

The conference’s public statement on Nov. 13 said Grambling would face financial penalties but did not give the figure. Grambling spokesman Will Sutton had said earlier that it would be $20,000.

And although Grambling will play in Jackson in 2014 through 2016, JSU gets only one extra home game in the annual series over the next four years. The 2015 game was already scheduled in Jackson. And the 2017 game, originally scheduled in Jackson, has been changed to Grambling, SWAC officials notified JSU on Wednesday.

Grambling spokesman Will Sutton spoke about the matter only in general terms, and would not say whether Grambling believed the penalties were fair or JSU’s loss estimates accurate, the newspaper reported.

“With Grambling State and Jackson State, you have two historically black universities from two different states but in the same conference. … The two universities are like family,” Sutton said. “I have a cousin who teaches at Jackson State. So these aren’t just JSU administrators to us. We’re highly competitive, but they’re family and friends.”

Sutton added, “I’m sure the arrangement determined by the conference between JSU and Grambling will begin to erase last fall’s disappointment. No, it’s not going to make it go away. But we’re looking forward to playing JSU on the gridiron the next three years.”

In addition to the $476,000 lost due to ticket refunds, JSU estimated it lost $60,320 in parking, $25,951 from concessions and $9,000 in vendor space. It also had to pay Veterans Memorial Stadium employees nearly $6,000 to handle refunds and almost $14,000 for a concert to replace the game.

Hood told The Clarion-Ledger that a public statement like the one Taylor requested is “not something we normally do, especially when it involves somebody in another state. They can sue you for declaratory judgment.”

Hood also said he had his staff to check on whether the schools and conference have any sort of agreement not to sue and didn’t hear back from Jackson State about that. “We aren’t even sure there was a contract between the two schools for the game. So it was our view that they decided to drop the whole thing,” he said.

JSU interim counsel Matthew Taylor said he had sent Deputy Attorney General Onetta S. Whitley a copy of the contract soon after the forfeit. He said he re-sent it Tuesday.

Signed by both university presidents, it covers all athletic events between the two schools during the 2013-14 school year. It says neither party will be held accountable for loss or damages due to causes beyond its reasonable control including, but not limited to, “acts of God, strikes, epidemics, war, riots, flood, fire, sabotage, terrorist activity or threat, closure or congestion of airports, order or restriction by any government authority or any other circumstances of like character.”

It does not address a boycott by scholarship football players.

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