Did Northwestern Basketball Run Off Johnnie Vassar?
Former Northwestern basketball player Johnnie Vassar is suing the university and the NCAA over what he characterizes as a "run-off"—an attempt to pressure and intimidate Vassar into separating from his four-year athletic scholarship.
by Kevin Trahan
Mar 29 2017, 3:37pm
Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports
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Vassar says that when the athletic department accused him directly of writing inaccurate time cards, his response was to ask Carolyn Lindley, a member of the appeals committee, "Why would I spell my name wrong?"
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On February 3, 2015, the Northwestern men's basketball team somberly walked to the visiting locker room of the Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska, after a 16-point loss to the Cornhuskers.
The team, now 1-8 in the Big Ten, sat down to meet, as it always does after games. Coach Chris Collins, then in his second season at Northwestern, turned to freshman point guard Johnnie Vassar.
According to Vassar and another person who was present, Collins yelled, "Johnnie, you fucking suck."
By any reasonable standard, Vassar had little to do with Northwestern's struggles. A seldom-used reserve, he had played one garbage-time minute against the Huskers. Yet, according to Vassar and another person who was present, Collins continued to berate the backup guard.
Another teammate later texted Vassar that he couldn't believe what he had witnessed, calling their coach's behavior "one of the most bs things I've seen" in his years playing college basketball. The teammate added, "It is all bullshit, and Collins is a huge asshole, I mean so many stupid things, but you are in the right, and have done things the right way/have maintained your attitude."
Looking back, Vassar believes there may have been more to Collins' outburst than frustration over a loss.
Two days after the game, Northwestern director of player development Ryan Humphrey, now an assistant coach at Notre Dame, texted Vassar to meet in the coaches' office before practice. There, according to Vassar, he sat down with Humphrey and assistant coach Armon Gates, and the two men broached a subject he hadn't expected to come up: transferring to another school.
"They said, 'Coach wanted me to speak to you about what was going on lately,'" Vassar told VICE Sports. "They said, 'I know you've been frustrated, are you thinking about transferring?'"
According to Vassar, he told Humphrey and Gates that while it was frustrating that he was not able to play as much as he had hoped, he was not interested in transferring. Vassar said his coaches asked again, and that he again said no.
This was the beginning of a two-year dispute with Northwestern athletics that Vassar and his mother, Cherise, now categorize as a "run-off"—an attempt by certain staff members at the school to pressure and intimidate Vassar into separating from his athletic scholarship, a four-year agreement that cannot be canceled unless an athlete breaks team rules or voluntarily withdraws.
Last November, Vassar sued Northwestern and the NCAA, alleging that the school tried to run him off by converting his athletic scholarship into an academic one in order to give his athletic scholarship to another player, and that the NCAA's transfer rules—which would have forced him to sit out from competition for a year after transferring—are unfair.
In response, Northwestern released a statement that Vassar's claims were "without merit and simply inaccurate." In January, the school and the NCAA filed separate motions to dismiss the suit, which is still pending.
Northwestern's athletic department, in a document submitted to the school's athletic aid appeals committee and obtained by VICE Sports, portrays Vassar as unhappy with his playing time, contemplating a transfer, and uncooperative at a campus internship that was managed by the athletic department and a requirement for Vassar to keep his scholarship. Ultimately, the document concluded, "John is the one who chose this path."
Key to the run-off dispute between Vassar and Northwestern's athletic department is a set of time cards from that campus internship that the department claims Vassar knowingly submitted with inaccurate information—evidence that was submitted by the department to school administrators in order to justify revoking Vassar's athletic scholarship.
Both in his lawsuit and to VICE Sports, Vassar has denied that the time cards were his. Documents and electronic communications reviewed by VICE Sports—some of them made public for the first time—suggest that the timecards in question do not appear to have been filled out by Vassar, and that the evidence submitted by Northwestern's athletic department may itself be inaccurate.
Vassar, who is still a student at Northwestern, and his mother recently met with VICE Sports in Chicago to publicly discuss their story at length for the first time. Sitting in a Starbucks, they referred to their meticulously organized notes throughout an interview that lasted more than three hours.
"Johnnie, do you have that document?" Cherise said.
"Yeah, I'll look on my phone."
"Never mind, I've got it right here."
Vassar and his mother have saved just about every document that they claim disputes or contradicts the Northwestern athletic department's account. Cherise seemed flabbergasted by the department's attempts to discredit her son; one by one, she disputed the department's claims, producing documents to support her position.
The two gave VICE Sports documents and text messages that appear to show Northwestern basketball coaches pressuring Vassar to sign a NCAA roster deletion form and give up his scholarship. Vassar also provided call logs to VICE Sports that show numerous phone calls from his coaches over less than a week's time, which he says were part of a coordinated effort to pressure him to leave.
The Wildcats recently completed the most successful season in school history, culminating in a first-ever NCAA tournament berth and first-round victory.
Northwestern spokesman Alan Cubbage told VICE Sports that Vassar's "litigation has no merit and the University will defend it aggressively." Cubbage did not respond to questions about the specific documents and electronic communications reviewed by VICE Sports. Northwestern did not make any athletic department staff or basketball coaches available for comment. Text messages from VICE Sports to Collins and Gates went unanswered, as did emails from VICE Sports to Humphrey, Northwestern deputy athletic director for external affairs Mike Polisky, and former Wildcat Internship Coordinator Cory Harbor.
Vassar told VICE Sports that he believes he has fulfilled the terms of the four-year scholarship agreement he signed when he arrived on Northwestern's campus nearly three years ago, and that he feels a responsibility to ensure that the school is also held accountable.
"I see a lot of my friends going through the same things even at other schools that may just transfer," he told VICE Sports. "I feel like it's (on me) to not let Northwestern get away with it. We have a thousand NCAA rules to follow. Why didn't they hold up to their end of the deal?"
A high school journey across the country
Ask any Northwestern fan what they know about Johnnie Vassar, and you'll likely hear that he went to four high schools in four years, a fact that some observers have used to question Vassar's credibility since filing his lawsuit.
"Let's not forget that Johnnie attended 3 or 4 high schools before coming to NU," wrote one commenter on Northwestern site Inside NU. "Wasn't Vassar at like 3 different high schools? He might not have been the best teammate," said another.
"You wrote a story about where in the world is Johnnie Vassar, but you didn't ask us, 'Who is Johnnie Vassar?'" she said.
So who is Johnnie Vassar? Well, he "eats, sleeps and poops basketball," according to Cherise.
Vassar is originally from Chicago's South Side, but he was raised in California. For the better part of the past decade, he has been a bit of a nomad, traveling to wherever he could get a good education—and play for a good basketball team. You can always find the latter in Chicago; the former is harder to come by.
"I had a fear of Chicago," Cherise said. "Every male in my family is in prison or dead. I wasn't going to do that."
Instead, Vassar spent most of his secondary education in boarding schools—schools on both coasts, flyover country, and in the Deep South. Four high schools in four years. Only Vassar, who describes himself as a homebody and a great cook, was no basketball diva searching for playing time at various schools. He wasn't jumping to shady charter schools and following coaches to the next-best team.
To the contrary, he was reacting—sometimes with moves across the country—to a series of unfortunate events. He went to the prestigious Lawrence Academy in Groton, Massachusetts, a point guard who could dunk as a five-foot-six seventh-grader. Illinois offered him a scholarship as a high-school freshman; at the time it was the flagship program in his home state. He garnered invitations to USA Basketball camps.
But Vassar was homesick at Lawrence Academy, so he decided to make what he figured would be his lone high school transfer, to La Lumiere High School in LaPorte, Indiana. By this time, he was ranked among the top 50 players in the country, on lists with future NBA players Jahlil Okafor and Andrew Wiggins. As a coveted recruit, he spent time on the campuses of Midwestern blue-blood programs, getting to know the world of high-major Division I basketball.
But at the same time his recruiting was ramping up, Vassar's grades were dropping. After Vassar had differences with his head coach—he says his coach forced him to go on a visit to Indiana with his team rather than a scheduled visit to Illinois—Cherise pulled her son out of La Lumiere, and homeschooled him to get his academics in order.
"He wouldn't be (an academic NCAA) qualifier if I left him there," she said.
By that time, Vassar was tired of boarding schools, and wanted to go to a public school. Chicago still wasn't an option, so the family found a school in Milton, Georgia, where Cherise moved with her son to give him a normal schooling experience. Milton also had a great basketball program. Coach David Boyd had won Georgia state basketball titles at four different schools, and he seemed like a safe bet to help Vassar find some stability, and jump back on the recruiting radar.
Instead, Boyd was slapped with recruiting violations that led to his resignation, and the boys' basketball program was put on probation. So Vassar decided to transfer one last time to Junipero Serra, a Catholic school in California near where his dad lived.
Vassar succeeded in getting back on the recruiting radar; he had options for college. He nearly committed to SMU with friend Emmanuel Mudiay, who ended up playing in China for a year before becoming a top NBA draft pick. He ultimately chose Northwestern and new coach Chris Collins, picking the school for its sterling academic reputation and what he perceived as stability.
"Graduating from Northwestern's a great education," Vassar said. "It was also the Big Ten and ... I wanted to be near family."
Vassar was the fifth and final player in Collins' first recruiting class. He wanted to play right away, and even though Northwestern had already signed another point guard in his year—current starter Bryant McIntosh—Vassar says the coaches sold them on a promise that the two would play together.
"I watched a film of (former Duke star) Kyrie Irving and (former UConn star) Ryan Boatright and me in side-by-side comparison videos," he said.
"I think they're all just trying to win"
Before Vassar even arrived on Northwestern's Evanston, Illinois, campus in the fall of 2014, the basketball program had seen a major roster shake-up, with three scholarship players and one walk-on from the 2013-14 team announcing that they would transfer.
Scholarship forward Kale Abrahamson went to Drake. Scholarship center Chier Ajou went to Seton Hall. Walk-on forward Aaron Liberman went to Tulane. Scholarship forward Mike Turner left the team, and didn't end up anywhere else.
"I thought he was just a cool dude," Abrahamson told Inside NU. "But I knew he was a killer deep down. There's two different phases. If you're that successful, you're not just one person.
"There's a public face, and there's a behind the scenes, I'm-a-killer nasty face. You've got to be a beast to be that successful and that strong and that tough. So I knew that initially. It kind of reminded me of my dad actually, because that's how my dad is. So I liked it. It was a good initial impression."
Abrahamson eventually transferred again, from Drake to Duquesne. Having played at three different schools in his college career, he told VICE Sports that he still feels the same way about Collins, and that he doesn't fault his former coach for his departure from Northwestern.
"I'm not trying to make myself look like a victim and say Chris Collins is a bad person; I think they're all just trying to win," he said, adding that he decided to transfer very early in the 2013-14 season, after it was clear he wasn't going to play.
Were people forced out at Northwestern?
"Oh, for sure," Abrahamson said. "Like I said, I'm not trying to throw anyone under the bus. I don't have any hard feelings for Chris Collins. I know what happened, he knows what happened, and we'll just live like men after this. I don't think it's exclusive to Northwestern; I don't think it's exclusive to any program. When I was at Drake, I was pressured to leave for whatever reason."
Collins did not respond to a VICE Sports interview request.
In NCAA Division I men's basketball, approximately 40 percent of players transfer by the end of their sophomore season. There's no way to know how many of those transfers can be characterized as run-offs; coaches are loathe to discuss individual cases and the phenomenon as a whole is cloaked in secrecy, largely because it is viewed by many as ethically dubious and can hamper future recruiting.
Coaches and athletes also can disagree about what constitutes a run-off. Abrahamson told VICE Sports that his transfer from Drake qualified. By contrast, the school's former coach, Ray Giacoletti, told The Des Moines Register at the time that "we just kind of came to an agreement that it was probably best for both parties."
Nevertheless, CBS Sports' Gary Parrish calls run-offs "one of college basketball's dirty little realities." And across campus athletics, the phenomenon isn't new. In a 2011 article about run-offs in college football, the Gainesville Times referenced a 1941 article accusing Alabama of running "hundreds of players off either by flunking them out or forcing them to quit." In 2010, three former Alabama football players told the Wall Street Journal that coaches falsely accused them of rules violations in order to kick them off the team and take their scholarships.
Former BYU basketball player Isaac Neilson told The Salt Lake Tribune that he was asked to leave by coach Dave Rose in 2015.
"I wish there was more I could have done," Neilson told the Tribune. "I wish there was more clarity [during the season] about what I could have done to stay, or what I could have done last year ...
"They said they were doing it in my best interest, so I can go on and be the best player I can be. The whole day I was in a shock. I came down with the stomach flu, or something. It wasn't a good day for me, so it was really hard to digest everything from that day. I just remember that I was like, 'oh, wow, he is releasing me.' They kinda threw this curveball at me, and it was just like, 'whoa, now I have to figure out a new place to transfer to.'"
"Who are we trying to kick off?"
Vassar first suspected that he was being run off after Northwestern lost to Indiana in the 2015 Big Ten Tournament to end a dismal 15-17 season. Coaches were scheduled to meet with everyone on the team, but according to Vassar, Collins asked to meet with him early.
"He said, 'I would never say to you, like, 'get the fuck out of here', but I'm also empathetic that you love to play,'" Vassar told VICE Sports, adding that Northwestern's coaches told him he likely wouldn't play the next year.
"That's what they played on: 'We know you love basketball so much, why don't you leave?'"
At the same time, Northwestern was actively recruiting high-school standout Kipper Nichols, who now plays for Illinois. Nichols had been on campus the day after the Nebraska game in early February—where Collins had berated Vassar—despite the fact that the Wildcats were already at the NCAA limit of 13 scholarships for the next year.
Northwestern wouldn't have the room to sign Nichols—not unless somebody left the basketball team.
"It was like, hold up, we have zero scholarships, who are we trying to kick off?" Vassar said.
Vassar says he was determined not to be the person who got kicked off. He didn't want the "transfer" label to keep following him.
"They keep telling me it won't be bad if you transfer," Vassar said. "I said I don't really want to transfer because I transferred a lot in high school and it's followed me. People perceive different things, and they don't realize it didn't have anything to do with basketball."
According to Vassar, Northwestern's coaches told him to think about it over spring break, and kept pestering him. Phone records provided to VICE Sports show that Collins, the assistant coach Gates, and the director of player development Humphrey called Vassar and his mother 16 times between March 16 and March 28, 2015.
In a March 24 text reviewed by VICE Sports from Humphrey's number to Vassar, the assistant coach wrote, "Look at this site this is the list of guys that are transferring this year. Don't wait to long and a guy that your better than gets a place you wanted to go."
The clock was ticking for the Wildcats: the late signing period for basketball recruits typically begins in the second week of April, and in order to sign Nichols, Northwestern would need an open scholarship.
Vassar says he asked his coaches to back off because the timing was bad for him. Cherise was having health issues, and he didn't want to have to think about such a big life decision at that point. According to Vassar, the coaches didn't like his mom's involvement in the decision.
"They were saying your mom has been so selfish and she doesn't want the best for you, you've gotta grow up and be a fucking man," he said.
Cherise says she wondered why the coaches who had compared her son to Kyrie Irving during his recruitment suddenly didn't want him anymore. She also says she wondered why they were told during recruitment that her son would be a starter, while Collins later told the media that he would be a "change-of-pace" guy.
Eventually, she says, she asked Gates if Northwestern basketball was running her son off.
"I said to Coach Gates, 'It sounds like you're forcing him out,'" she told VICE Sports. "And he said, 'Coach won't admit to it, but we are.' I said, 'Why didn't you play him?' He said, 'Coach didn't want a jiggerbug,'" meaning a frantic, flashy player like Vassar.
Cherise continued, "I said, 'You knew his of play when you recruited him, why did you recruit him?' He said, 'To be honest, Cherise, we just needed bodies at that time.'"
Gates did not respond to a VICE Sports interview request.
As March came to a close, Vassar says, Northwestern's coaches came to him with another idea: they wanted him to ask the athletic department for written permission to contact, which under NCAA rules would allow other schools to contact him about transferring.
"They said, 'Johnnie, we're not saying you've got to transfer, you've just got to get this form to look at transferring,'" Vassar said. "(Collins) said, 'I'll tell (ESPN college basketball reporter) Jeff Goodman that he's a good player and this is no fault of his own.'"
Vassar says that he agreed to look around, and that he worked with Northwestern athletics on a press release communicating as much. On March 30, however, Northwestern posted a statement that began, "Freshman guard Johnnie Vassar will transfer from Northwestern University head men's basketball coach Chris Collins announced today."
Vassar says he found out about his supposed transfer while he was in class, and that he and his mother did not approve the statement. In the document submitted to the school's athletic aid appeals committee, Northwestern's athletic department claims that Vassar did approve it. That document also cites a statement Vassar posted on Twitter that day as proof that he intended to withdraw from the basketball team.
Vassar told VICE Sports that he felt pressured to release a statement of his own after seeing the school's statement. Regardless of what Northwestern and Vassar's statements said—or whether Vassar meant his—he did not sign a roster deletion form or a release from scholarship form stating that he was voluntarily removing himself from the basketball team. According to two compliance officials at other NCAA Division I schools who spoke to VICE Sports, this means that Vassar did not begin the official transfer process required by the NCAA. NCAA rules specifically state that a student-athlete requesting permission to contact, by itself, "does not constitute a voluntary withdrawal" from a team.
Vassar and his mother have previously told Jon Solomon of CBSSports.com that DePaul, Georgia Tech, Utah, and UNLV offered to take him as a transfer in the spring of 2015 if he could get an NCAA waiver to play immediately, but that the association would not grant one. Vassar told VICE that he looked at different transfer opportunities, including several mid-major programs, and also had junior and lower-level college offers. None offered an academic program that he considered suitable or comparable to Northwestern's. So he decided to stay.
"I'm not gonna sign a blank document"
It's unclear whether Northwestern was still recruiting Nichols at the time of Vassar's decision. The high-schooler signed his National Letter of Intent with Tulane that April, but according to screenshots from Vassar's phone that show texts from Nichols' number on June 12, Nichols asked about life at Northwestern and the program and wrote that he was "looking at schools closer to home."
Northwestern did not respond to a VICE Sports inquiry about whether it was still recruiting Nichols at the time; if the school was, it arguably would amount to a violation of NLI rules, according to one of the NCAA compliance officials.
An attempt to reach Nichols through the University of Illinois, where he now plays, was unsuccessful.
In the months before those texts from Nichols, Vassar says Northwestern coaches were trying to get him to voluntarily withdraw from the team by promising nothing would change.
Vassar showed VICE Sports a sticky note that he said Humphrey left on a blank roster deletion form that read, "JV, Sign this paper. You can still work out and play pickup with the guys. I told you before I am still here for you. - Hump." Vassar said he refused to sign the form, knowing that Northwestern staffers could fill it out after the fact however they wanted.
"I told them I'm not gonna sign a blank document," he said. "That's just dumb."
Electronic communications reviewed by VICE Sports appear to show that Humphrey texted Vassar four times between April 10 and May 30, 2015. Vassar said the texts were about signing the roster deletion form. From the texts, which Vassar did not respond to:
● April 10: Just checking on you.
● April 15: Check your email can you sign and return that to Polisky. Thanks.
● April 20: Hey I need you to get the paper work done and get it to Polisky.
● May 30: Just want to check on you and see how your doing? If you want me to contact anybody I will.
Even though Vassar did not choose to transfer, the university could still take him off the basketball team as long as it allowed him to keep his promised four-year athletic scholarship.
According to Vassar, Polisky called and told him that in order to keep his scholarship, he and his mother would be required to sign a Non-Participant Agreement that would allow Vassar to keep his athletic scholarship as long as he worked eight hours per week in the school's Wildcat Internship Program and remained compliant with NCAA rules, such as those regarding amateurism and drug testing. Cherise and Vassar said that they then met with Northwestern vice president for athletics and recreation Jim Phillips, Collins, Polisky, associate athletic director for compliance Aaron Hosman, and a member of the school's financial aid office on July 1, 2015, to sign the form.
Cherise said that she and and her son signed the agreement because they believed that he would lose his athletic scholarship if they didn't. One of the NCAA Division I school compliance officials who spoke to VICE Sports said that isn't the case. "You can't push them off to another obligation," the official said. "There's nowhere in the NCAA manual that says anything about that. If they say, 'you need to do 40 community service hours,' no, you don't. It doesn't say anything about that." Another NCAA Division I school compliance official confirmed that analysis to VICE Sports.
Northwestern did not respond to repeated VICE Sports requests for comment.
Having signed the form, Vassar was required to participate in the internship program—as an email from Northwestern academic advisor Cory Harbor to Johnnie on September 25, 2015, stated, "since you no longer can participate athletically with your sport you will be required to complete 8 hours of work within our athletic department on a weekly basis."
The program is generally meant for athletes on full scholarships who have retired from sports for medical reasons and do not count against the NCAA's team-wide scholarship limits (so-called "medical non-counters"). Because Vassar had not withdrawn for medical reasons, his scholarship still counted against the NCAA limit; however, Northwestern still enrolled him in the internship program because he was a "non-participant." The athletic department's statement to Northwestern's athletic aid appeals committee noted the difference, saying that seven other athletes had similar agreements, but all were medical non-counters.
The internship typically required working eight hours per week, unpaid, in an area of the student's choice within the school's athletic department, such as marketing, the ticket office, or intramural sports. Vassar claims that unlike the other interns in the program, he was not able to choose his job. He was assigned to the facilities program, which required him to clean up after and set up for his former team during the basketball season, as well as perform manual labor around campus.
Vassar said it didn't feel much like a legitimate internship.
"I was very insulted, and I was cleaning up for a team that I used to play for," he said. "If it was raining, I would have to wipe down the tennis seats, but then it would rain again, so I'd be sent right back there to do that. I was also blowing leaves and had to rake them up. It was also weird because it was in the middle of campus, and people would ask, 'What are you doing?'"
Vassar said that after being repeatedly yelled at by a facilities manager for messing up the paint lines on the football field—he had never painted a football field before—he requested a job change.
Emails reviewed by VICE Sports show that on November 14, 2015, Harbor wrote to Vassar that there were openings in three departments "seeking student assistance": Cats Give Back-Community Service, Ticket Operations, and Equipment Management.
However, Vassar says that he was not able to switch jobs, and that Harbor told him that Polisky would not allow it. "He called me and said, 'You're all set to go, but Mike Polisky said under no circumstances are you able to change jobs,'" Vassar said.
Vassar says that he then asked Polisky about it directly. "I asked Polisky and he said, 'We're not moving you,' and he said, 'because you don't look happy,'" Vassar said. "I said, 'It doesn't matter if I look happy.' He said, 'I'm just helping you like you're my kid,' and I said, 'Don't act like I'm your kid, because you'd never have your kid working something like that.'"
The athletic department document submitted to Northwestern's athletic aid appeals committee claims that Vassar found facilities work to be "beneath him," that he was "tardy and disrespectful," and that he felt the department "intentionally placed him in a demeaning role." It also claims that athletic department staffers explained to Vassar that "many student-athletes" worked in the facilities department during the summer and through work-study programs.
Citing Northwestern associate athletic director for facilities Scott Arey, the document claims that:
● Vassar ignored repeated instructions to store his cell phone in a locker while at work.
● In a specific incident in November 2015, Vassar did not do work that was assigned to him, but instead was in an adjacent area talking on his cell phone. Vassar allegedly told his supervisor, Joe Berube, that he was "dealing with a family emergency." Berube allegedly told him that if he needed to deal with the situation, he should "punch out and leave work." Vassar allegedly told Berube that "he wasn't actually required to work, just to show up for eight hours a week."
● It was "not possible" for Berube to assign Vassar work and "have it be completed," necessitating that Vassar be assigned alongside other grounds crew staff members to complete specific tasks.
● At least four temporary grounds crew employees were "resistant" to have the "responsibility" of "shepherding" Vassar during the work day because he would "mostly do nothing while they worked."
● An unnamed Northwestern athlete who had been a member of the grounds crew seasonally for three years described Vassar's work as "terrible."
The document claims that Vassar complained to Harbor, an athletic department executive, and Northwestern vice president of athletics and recreation Jim Phillips about his internship and requested a position change. In a subsequent meeting between Polisky and Vassar, the document says, Polisky "suggested" to Vassar that he would put together "an entire plan of work experiences to meet John's long-term career aspirations," provided Vassar "committed to doing a great job with his facilities role for a three-week period."
Vassar's work behavior, the document states, "did not improve."
Vassar disputes the allegations in the document. He told VICE Sports that he simply didn't know how to do a lot of the work. He also said one supervisor was particularly harsh on him, which led him to request a job change in the first place.
"It's the first time I'm ever using, like, a lawn mower or blow (leaves) or do a lot of things I've never done," he said. "I had a chaperone for everything. Literally, I couldn't go anywhere by myself, but if someone else came (to work), they let him go by himself and drive the cart or whatever."
Polisky did not respond to a VICE Sports interview request.
"We are trying to be creative"
On November 6, 2015, Vassar and his mother retained a lawyer, Jon King. On March 3, 2016, Northwestern deputy general counsel Priya Harjani emailed King about setting up a call to discuss a "different type of proposal to offer. We are trying to be creative."
Vassar's lawsuit alleges that on March 9, Harjani "informally inquired into Johnnie's openness to considering a cash payment equivalent to the remaining value of his athletics scholarship." VICE Sports also reviewed an email communication, dated March 9, between King and the Vassars that references the inquiry and discusses the Vassars' response.
(In its motion to dismiss Vassar's lawsuit earlier this year, Northwestern asked to strike allegations from the record that "improperly disclose settlement agreements between Plaintiff and Northwestern.")
Vassar told VICE Sports that he was not interested in a cash payment, as it would jeopardize his remaining NCAA athletic eligibility.
On March 16, Northwestern came back with a new offer: Harjani emailed King with a proposal to move Vassar to a "merit based scholarship," in which he would "be covered financially the exact same way he currently is," but no longer be on an athletic scholarship. Harjani wrote in an email, "This is a time-sensitive matter for us for several reasons."
(Northwestern did not respond to a VICE Sports inquiry into why the matter was so time-sensitive, but at the time the Wildcats were recruiting graduate transfer Canyon Barry, who had opened his transfer recruiting process on March 14. Barry visited the school in late April, even though Northwestern did not have an open scholarship.)
On April 9, Harjani emailed King again about a non-athletic-scholarship offer. "Northwestern has the ability to revoke [Vassar's] athletic scholarship should he not sign the agreement and plans to do so," she wrote. "I can assure you that the senior leadership at Northwestern is aware of this situation." On April 14, Harjani repeated the ultimatum: agree to switch from the athletic to the non-athletic scholarship, or lose the scholarship altogether.
The NCAA has rules governing when and under what circumstances member schools can reduce or cancel athletic scholarships. As of August 2015, Bylaw 15.3.5—which applies to autonomy conferences like the Big Ten—mandates that athletic aid can be reduced or canceled "during the period of the reward" if a scholarship recipient:
"(a) Renders himself or herself ineligible for intercollegiate competition;
(b) Fraudulently misrepresents any information on an application, letter of intent or financial aid agreement...;
(c) Engages in serious misconduct warranting substantial disciplinary penalty, as determined by the institution's regular student disciplinary authority;
(d) Voluntarily (on his or her own initiative) withdraws from a sport at any time for personal reasons;... or
(e) Violates a nonathletically related condition outlined in the financial aid agreement or violates a documented institutional rule or policy (e.g., academics policies or standards, athletics department or team rules or policies)."
Vassar says he didn't understand at the time how Northwestern would be able to revoke his athletic scholarship if he was still complying with the terms of the non-participant agreement, which included following NCAA rules, attending drug tests, and participating in the internship program.
Cherise said that Vassar wanted to remain on his athletic scholarship as a matter of principle, and also to protect himself.
"First of all, it's not right (that Northwestern tried to separate Vassar from his athletic scholarship)," she said. "The other thing is, there's a trust factor here, because if you took (Johnnie's) first scholarship what's to (say) you won't take (the academic) scholarship? At least (the athletic scholarship is) backed by the NCAA."
Vassar chose not to accept the academic scholarship offer.
"Why would I spell my name wrong?"
On April 20, Carolyn Lindley, Northwestern's director of financial aid, emailed Vassar to inform him that with the athletic department's recommendation, the university was revoking his athletic scholarship due to "noncompliance with the terms outlined in the nonparticipant agreement."
"Please note," Lindley wrote, "that should you continue to remain enrolled as a student in good standing at Northwestern University for the 2016-17 and 2017-18 academic years, the University has agreed to administer a scholarship covering your full cost of attendance." She also included information about the appeals process, as required by NCAA regulations. Vassar had 48 hours to appeal the decision with Northwestern's Athletic Aid Appeals Committee, which is independent of the athletic department.
After the Vassars' lawyer sought more information, Harjani wrote in an email dated April 22 that the contract was considered breached because "Johnnie regularly worked fewer than the agreed-upon weekly hours (8) and, subsequently, submitted fraudulent reports to the athletic department."
Harjani also wrote that if Vassar "exercise[d] his right to appeal, then Northwestern will not grant him the non-athletic scholarship outlined in [Lindley's] email." If he waived that right, however, then the university would still give him a non-athletic scholarship, and also "provide him the tutoring he currently is receiving through the Athletics Department without any work obligations."
Vassar decided to appeal anyway. VICE Sports obtained the document of allegations against Vassar, which was sent to the appeals committee by the athletic department's Polisky on April 26. According to the document, Northwestern based its case primarily on several time cards it said belonged to Vassar. Interns in the Wildcat program would punch in and out of their shifts using these time cards; in addition, interns filled out a weekly time log that tallied the hours worked based on those time cards and was signed by a supervisor.
In addition to portraying Vassar as a poor worker, the document alleges that:
● Seven time cards the department claimed belonged to Vassar showed he "regularly failed to work eight hours per week"—and therefore, Vassar's weekly time logs, which said he worked eight hours, "were inaccurate."
● Vassar submitted his weekly time logs only three times.
● Vassar once called in sick but was on campus three hours later doing academic work.
The document also stated that Vassar's decision not to voluntarily remove himself from the roster "caused an immediate impact with our basketball program. Each Division I program is able to fund 13 full scholarships and, because of John's decision to transfer, our program naturally was researching other student-athletes to fill his open spot."
Vassar disputes Northwestern's claim that he submitted only three weekly logs. He said that Harbor, who ran the internship program, told him he didn't have to submit one every single week if he was working the same hours each week.
"Cory Harbor said if they're going to be the same thing and I work the same hours, put the same thing. He said you don't have to fill out a billion, just give me one and I'll fill it out," Vassar said.
Harbor, who is now the assistant director for academics at the University of Colorado, did not respond to an email from VICE Sports.
VICE Sports reviewed the seven time cards Northwestern used as proof of its claims and observed the following discrepancies:
● One card spells Vassar's name wong; one has only another person's name on it (with that person's name crossed out); one says "Johnnie V" and has another crossed-out name; one is blank; and three have Vassar's name spelled correctly, but in handwriting that appears to be different than Vassar's.
● One of the time cards Northwestern says Vassar submitted includes punch-in times on March 26 and March 28. Vassar, however, says he was in California for his father's funeral that week, and that he told the school he would be away and never claimed to work then. Vassar provided credit card statements to VICE Sports showing purchases made in San Juan Capistrano and Irvine, California, at this time. The family also provided plane ticket receipts to show that Vassar was out of town between March 21 and March 28.
● Northwestern submitted Vassar's weekly log for October 12-18 to the appeals committee and what it says was his corresponding time card. That time card spells his name wrong: "Johnie," not "Johnnie."
● Vassar provided one of his weekly time logs to VICE Sports, which showed that he previously submitted an official time log as "John," not "Johnnie." The time log was signed off by his supervisor and turned in to Harbor.
● The handwriting on the timecards referenced by Northwestern, supposedly submitted by Vassar, does not appear to match Vassar's handwriting, which is shown on the weekly time log. The time cards with his name written on them appear to have multiple sets of handwriting on them.
Vassar says that when the athletic department accused him directly of writing inaccurate time cards, his response was to ask Carolyn Lindley, a member of the appeals committee, "Why would I spell my name wrong?"
On May 4, 2016, Lindley wrote to Vassar that the appeals committee had sided with him, and he had won his appeal. It found that the athletic department "has not provided sufficient information for a removal of your athletic scholarship," and "acknowleg(ed) that you indicated a lack of trust in the Department of Athletics."
Lindley also wrote, however, that the committee chose to place Vassar on a full academic scholarship rather than have him keep his athletic scholarship "due to the unusual circumstances presented in the appeal." Lindley continued:
"In our conversation on April 28, you discussed that you had not come to Northwestern with the expectation that you would be doing maintenance work and that it was very awkward for you to be at work while other student athletes were coming for practice. Since work for the Department of Athletics was a part of the July 1, 2015, agreement, the Committee is taking away this obstacle by removing your athletic scholarship and providing you with equivalent scholarship from the general Northwestern Scholarship account in the same amount as you would have received as a student athlete."
This would mean Vassar would no longer have to work. However, Vassar says that he wanted to stay on an athletic scholarship because it provided tutoring, access to training facilities, early registration for classes, and other perks enjoyed by Northwestern's athletes.
Northwestern's motion to dismiss Vassar's lawsuit claims that those perks are not part of the Non-Participant Agreement that Vassar signed with the school. A term sheet printed on Northwestern athletic department letterhead, signed by Vassar, his mother, and a third person who she says is Polisky, and dated July 1, 2015, that was reviewed by VICE Sports states that "the student may continue to receive academic advising and other support as needed, but will not be eligible for priority registration."
"I have no problem working," Vassar told VICE Sports. He just preferred to do something other than maintenance work—which is why, he says, he requested a job change in the first place, and not a job cancellation.
It is unclear whether Northwestern still counts Vassar as part of the basketball team's 13 scholarships. While Northwestern's conduct may potentially violate NCAA rules regarding athletic scholarships, a representative for the NCAA told VICE Sports that it will not comment on whether it is currently investigating Vassar's situation at Northwestern.
"Everything that's good and right"
Six months after the appeals committee decision, in November 2016, Vassar became the lead plaintiff in a class action suit against Northwestern and the NCAA, alleging that the school had unfairly canceled his athletic scholarship and that the organization's transfer rules, which would have forced him to sit out from competition for a year after transferring, unfairly limited his opportunities.
Specifically, Vassar's suit alleges that Northwestern converted his athletic scholarship into an academic scholarship, causing him to lose possible summer school tuition payments, the ability to register for his classes before other students, receive medical and health services from the school's sports medicine staff, and use the school's training facilities and receive training to maintain his basketball skills.
The suit argues that NCAA rules requiring transfers to sit out from athletic competition for a year violate antitrust law and harm Vassar and other athletes by restraining their ability to find other schools to play for. Multiple Division I basketball programs would have brought Vassar "onto their program if he could play right away," the suit claims, but because Vassar couldn't, those programs lost interest in him.
Northwestern's motion to dismiss argues that the school only was under contractual obligation to provide Vassar with tuition, fees, room, board, and books—and since Vassar received those things under both his athletic and academic scholarships, the losses he claims to have suffered were not part of any agreement between him and the school.
The NCAA's motion to dismiss argues that its transfer rules do not violate federal antitrust law.
Vassar, a junior, is still in classes at Northwestern and told VICE Sports that he is enjoying his non-athletic experience at the university. He's majoring in communications, and still hopes to play basketball after Northwestern, whether as a graduate transfer at a top university, or as a professional in the United States or overseas.
Northwestern basketball is currently better than it has ever been on the court. For the first time in 78 years, the program participated in the NCAA tournament, becoming the last longtime member of a traditional power conference to do so.
After the Wildcats received an at-large bid to the 68-team tournament—as the No. 8 seed in the West Region, Northwestern beat No. 9 seed Vanderbilt in Salt Lake City before falling to No. 1 seed Gonzaga—athletic director Jim Phillips said that Collins "represents everything that's good and right about college basketball."
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