Sports Law Blog
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Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Bad Duke Football Team Wins in Court
Being a bad football team paid off for Duke University, which won a breach of contract lawsuit because in large part because of its unsuccessful track record and a contract clause that required the plaintiff, the University of Louisville to find an adequate substitute school after Duke backed out of a obligation to pay the better school.
Duke's football team has amassed a record that few would envy. Six wins and 45 losses over the last five seasons puts the team in the category of as bad as it could get. As reported by the Louisville Courier-Journal, the University of Louisville sued Duke claiming breach after the Blue Devils opted out of the final three games of a four-game football series covering the 2002, 2007, 2008 and 2009 seasons after Louisville demolished the Duke Team 40-3 after the first game in 2002. Apparently, Duke waved the surrender flag to avoid more embarrassments.
The case, University of Louisville v. Duke University, No. 07-CI-1765, filed in Franklin (county) circuit court, sought $450,000 in damages. The amount was derived from a contractual cancellation penalty clause of $150,000 per game if the nonbreaching party is unable to schedule a replacement game with a “team of similar stature." According to the article, Duke asked Louisville to attempt a good faith effort to find a replacement opponent and promised to pay Louisville only if the school could not find one. Louisville claims it could not do so and therefore asked for the liquidated damages.
It is in interpreting "team of similar stature" where Duke's lack of success helped. Judge Phillip J. Shepherd agreed with Duke’s argument that it team was so bad that finding a replacement team of "similar stature" should have been a slam dunk (pardon the bad pun). As the opinion noted:
"To say that one thing is “of a similar stature” to another is to say that
the two are on the same level. Nothing in the language of the agreement
suggests that it is necessary or appropriate to conduct an in-depth
analysis of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the breaching team
and its potential replacements. Nor does the agreement specify that
replacement teams must be from a particular major athletic
conference or even a particular division of the National Collegiate Athletic
Association (NCAA). The term “team of similar stature” simply means any team
that competes at the same level of athletic performance as the Duke football
team. At oral argument, Duke (with a candor perhaps more attributable to
good legal strategy than to institutional modesty) persuasively asserted
that this is a threshold that could not be any lower. Duke's argument
on this point cannot be reasonably disputed by Louisville.
Louisville did find substitute teams and the court rejected the claim that the term "similar stature" was ambiguous. According to Shepherd, finding a suitable replacement literally meant that any NCAA Division I team would suffice – including those in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-AA.) Therefore, the court granted summary judgment for Duke for the 2007 and 2008 season, but did not consider the 2009 season since the claim lacked ripeness.
Imagine, however, if Duke was a more competitive football team. Then the substitution clause would be more difficult to fulfill. Or, in a legal nightmare scenario, imagine that Duke's football team was as good as its men's basketball team! Needless to say, substation would be far more difficult.
[Note: I would like to thank reporter C.L. Brown and the Louisville Courier-Journal, who giving me access to the opinion.]