A University Goes To Court To Keep A Player Off The Team

A college basketball player is charged with sexual abuse. The charges are dropped, but his university kicks him off the team. A judge orders him reinstated, and now the state supreme court will hear the case. There is a fascinating story playing out at Iowa State, one with no easy answers, but that goes to the very heart of college sports: Who decides who gets to play?

The case of ISU backup point guard Yempabou "Bubu" Palo has kept the redshirt senior in limbo for more than two years, and with his eligibility expiring, Palo's last hope of playing again now sits in the Iowa State Supreme Court. It's been a long and complicated path, so I'll do my best to summarize it.

  1. In September of 2012, Palo was charged with second-degree sex abuse, a Class B felony, in connection with an alleged incident that had taken place in May, and he was suspended indefinitely from the team.
  2. At the same time, Iowa State's Office of Judicial Affairs charged Palo with violating the university's code of conduct.
  3. In January 2013, the criminal charge was dropped and Palo was reinstated to the team in time to play 17 games.
  4. In May 2013, the charges brought by the university Office of Judicial Affairs were heard by an administrative law judge, who concluded that they were "not founded."
  5. The university filed an appeal of that decision, which was heard by Iowa State President Steven Leath. In August 2013, Leath ruled that Palo had violated the code of conduct, and he was thrown off the basketball team.
  6. Palo appealed to the state Board of Regents, who in December upheld Leath's ruling.
  7. Palo made one last appeal, to a district court. In a shock decision announced last Thursday, the judge issued a stay that immediately restored Palo's eligibility.
  8. Yesterday, the Iowa attorney general's office, on behalf of the Board of Regents, filed to the State Supreme Court for an immediate stay of the district court's ruling. Palo's attorneys have one week to respond.

This is an incredible situation. The state of Iowa wants Bubu Palo off the basketball team. So does his university. Even ISU's athletic director wants him gone:

"We are disappointed to learn of the district court judge's decision to reinstate Bubu Palo to our basketball team," Pollard's statement said. "We believe the university should have the sole right and responsibility to determine any student's participation in extracurricular activities at Iowa State University."

This is around the point you're wondering what, precisely, the allegations against Palo entailed, because though the school and the courts base their decisions only on matters of law, there was an allegation of sexual assault here. It'd be inhuman not to let your emotions play a role in deciding what to believe.

There are not a ton of publicly available details—unlike the Jameis Winston investigation, this took place out of the media spotlight, and featured no press conferences. According to the criminal complaint, on May 18, 2012, Palo and an associate, Spencer Cruise, offered to give a ride home to a woman, a former student who had exchanged text messages with Palo earlier in the night. Instead, she claimed, they drove her to Cruise's house. According to a search warrant issued in the case, the woman said she was sexually assaulted by Cruise while Palo wandered in and out of the room. She claims Palo then sexually assaulted her. DNA from the accuser was matched to both Cruise and Palo.

The Story County Attorney's Office did not explain when the charges against both men were dropped, but it did highlight one major inconsistency in the accuser's story. The woman turned over a blouse that she claimed had been torn in the alleged assault, then lost until December. She testified she had washed it 10 days after the alleged assault. But a forensics expert determined that the blouse had been torn after it was washed. Beyond this, Palo's attorney cited "several inconsistencies" in the woman's story.

As I said, there are no easy answers here.

What's not up for debate is that Iowa State's disciplinary board isn't held to the same standards as prosecutors, and the student code of conduct is more stringent than the law. Even Palo's attorneys haven't disputed that the university has the right to kick him off the basketball team. Instead, his appeals have hinged on what could almost be considered a technicality.

Palo's claim is that the university took too long to make a decision on his eligibility. The university president's ruling from August was handed down five days after the deadline for athletes to transfer, and by being forced to wait it out, Palo lost his chance to play his senior season elsewhere.

"If they would have moved promptly and said we don't want you, I would have understood," Palo said. "I would have gone on my way.

"With the timing of the decision, I didn't have a choice."

Palo's at-least-temporary return has been rough on the Cyclones, who have lost three straight after starting the season 14-0. He's not traveling with the team, though he did attend his first practice yesterday. Coach Fred Hoiberg had a brief meeting with Palo on Saturday, but said they haven't spoken since. A players-only meeting was described as constructive: "We just got a lot of stuff off our chest that we felt we needed to talk about," forward Georges Niang said.

Players have said that they're happy for Palo, but they'll leave things to Hoiberg. Palo, too, says he'll "do whatever coach Fred wants me to do. I don't want to come in and mess anything up." But this decision goes well beyond the coach.

Despite the NCAA having no direct hand in in this case, former compliance officer John Infante believes that it could, at least in the court of public opinion, challenge one of the NCAA's guiding principles.

For decades, courts have ruled that participation is only a privilege, thus entitling student-athletes to only minimal due process protections.

A victory by a student-athlete in a state supreme court would at the very least reopen the debate about whether athletics participation is a privilege or right. The implications, even just in one state, would be immense. Can a court force a university to travel and play a student-athlete? Could athletes sue over admissions decisions, grades, or good standing decisions? Would it expose the NCAA Manual to judicial review?

Palo's is a deeply unusual situation, with little chance of setting precedent beyond the minutiae of state oversight of public universities, and a final ruling for either side is sure to leave everyone feeling uncomfortable. If there's any lesson here, it's only that life gets messy and sports aren't immune.