Alpert continues fight for ‘justice’

Though the lawsuits filed by former USF basketball players against the university no longer dominate the front-page headlines, the story is far from over.

Jonathan Alpert, attorney for the litigants, said that the process could take a long time to be resolved.

“It could be years,” Alpert said. “I expect the university to take appeals, and I am prepared to do what is necessary to achieve racial justice, which is not just a matter for the courts.”

Since senior point guard Dione Smith filed the first lawsuit Aug. 29, 2000, 11 former players and coaches have also filed suits against the university and former coach Jerry Ann Winters, alleging racial discrimination within the women’s basketball program and an insufficient response by the university. A Public Records Act lawsuit brings the total to 13, Alpert said.

The complaints included racially segregated housing and dining arrangements and harsher punishments for black players.

“These kids initially got into this to try to stop it from ever happening again,” Alpert said. “And as a result, they have been put through a couple of years of very intense litigation and had their careers and lives put on hold.”

After originally asking for a total of $395,000 in damages from the university and Winters, those who filed lawsuits are now seeking roughly $10 million from the university. Alpert said the university had ample chance to correct the situation years ago.

“The problem is the university never investigated,” Alpert said. “And it would have been very simple to have done this. And the reason why it didn’t investigate was it knew what the answer to the investigation was.”

Former Athletics Director Paul Griffin fired Winters in December 2000 and was later forced to resign after it was alleged that he abetted in covering up the players’ complaints. But even with those two gone, Alpert is not yet satisfied.

“We never asked for anybody to be fired,” Alpert said. “That was never anything that we asked for … we never asked that anyone be fired, we never asked that anybody be discharged, we never asked that anybody be scapegoated – we asked that the problem be solved.

“And rather than solve the problem, the university chose to take some unilateral actions that may or may not have been inappropriate.”

Having already received national attention, the saga may now garner even more with the addition of high-profile lawyer Willie Gary to the plaintiffs’ legal team. Gary, among the most acclaimed and wealthiest trial lawyers in America, successfully sued the Walt Disney Co. in 2000 for stealing the idea for a theme park. The company was forced to pay $240 million in damages.

Gary travels in his personal Boeing 737, dubbed “Wings of Justice.”

“I think it’s very significant that Willie Gary and his law firm are involved,” Alpert said. “And I think that, hopefully, it will eliminate a lot of the personal criticism that has been made about me in an effort to distract the university, the community, the state and the country from the issues in these lawsuits.

“And it’s not just lawsuits. The issues are issues of very serious racial injustice which is perhaps unparalleled since the mid-1950s by a state body, an organ of the state.”

Gary is probably the most famous African-American lawyer next to O.J. Simpson defender Johnnie Cochran, but Alpert said race is not an issue.

“I don’t make race-based decisions,” he said. “What’s important is that Mr. Gary and his law firm have won many, many very significant verdicts and achieved justice for many, many clients.”

Alpert outlined what it is he wants from the university.

“The university first has to provide redress for its victims – rather than seeking scapegoats – which it has refused to do,” Alpert said. “It has to give these kids a chance at completing their college educations, which it has refused to do. It has to make sure that this never happens again, which it has refused to do. And it has to implement decent, honest and fair policies and procedures acknowledging ownership of this problem, which it has refused to do.”

Alpert said the lawsuits are a simple matter of right vs. wrong.

“This, again, is the most egregious case of racial discrimination against a group of people in the last 50 years by a state body,” Alpert said. “The university knew it. Their records show they that they knew it.”

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