A brawl involving Michigan men’s basketball coach Juwan Howard and Wisconsin’s men basketball coach Greg Gard on Sunday could have legal ramifications.
The incident began during the postgame handshake after the Badgers defeated the Wolverines, 77-63, at the Kohl Center in Madison, Wisc. After an ordinary set of handshakes with Michigan coaches and staff, Gard encountered Howard, whom he stopped and then exchanged words. The two men started to argue. As their disagreement escalated, Howard appeared to grab Gard’s sweater. Wisconsin assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft then tried to intervene and Howard swung or slapped at him with an open hand, leading to a fracas among coaches and players that appeared to include thrown punches on both sides.
After the game, Howard explained that he objected to Wisconsin’s calling two timeouts in the last minute of a game in which the Badgers were on track for a blowout win.
“I thought it was not necessary at that moment, especially with it being a large lead,” Howard explained. “I thought that wasn’t fair to our guys. And so that’s what happened.”
Howard also alleged that someone “touched” him which sparked his reaction.
“I think,” Howard explained, “it was very uncalled for, for them to touch me, as we were verbalizing and communicating with one another.”
Gard, had called the first timeout to insert his walk-ons, and when Michigan continued to run its full-court press, Gard insisted he called time again to reset the 10-second count, noting, “We only had four seconds to get the ball past half court.”
In a statement after the game, Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel apologized to Wisconsin, calling it “totally unacceptable behavior” for his staff and players to “get into a physical altercation with others regardless of instigating factors.” Meanwhile, the Big Ten assured it would investigate and take “appropriate disciplinary action.” On Monday, the Big Ten announced that Howard had been suspended for the rest of the season and fined $40,000 while Gard was fined $10,000.
The incident is particularly problematic because it occurred in a college game. As part of the “student-athlete” principle, college sports are supposed to educate the players—many of whom are teenagers—and teach them valuable life lessons While that concept is likely a remnant of a long bygone era, it is still one the NCAA advocates. Here, the coaches taught them the wrong lessons—namely to fight over a dispute that could be resolved in private and without punches.
In theory, the incident could be considered “criminal” given that punches were thrown. Charges for disorderly conduct are conceivable. Consider what would happen if the same brawl took place outside a bar and police saw it—most likely, some of those involved would be spending a night or two in jail. However, since law enforcement seldom issue charges when the incident occurs as part of a sporting event, and since it appears no one was hurt, the aftermath will be limited to potential employment law repercussions.
It’s conceivable the schools could fire the coaches and staff for this incident. Manuel’s statement, which references university president Mary Sue Coleman, indicates his school is very annoyed and embarrassed by what transpired. The schools could even attempt to fire the coaches with cause and relieve themselves of remaining payment obligations.
Take Howard. As part of a five-year contract extension he signed in 2021, the retired NBA star is set to earn $3.32 million in 2022-23, $3.38 million in 2023-24, $3.45 million in 2024-25 and $3.52 million in 2025-26.
Like other coaches, Howard’s contract contains language detailing under which circumstances the school could fire him with cause. Michigan possesses the right to fire Howard if he partakes in “conduct which offends against public decency or morality as shall be determined by the standards prevailing in the community.” Similarly, Howard is barred from acts that “result in material injury to the reputation of the school.”
Howard is also subject to termination with cause if he fails to perform services required of him in the contract. To that end, he is obligated to comply with NCAA, Big Ten and university rules—Michigan’s code of conduct mandates “respect for human rights and dignity”—and to “integrate sports into the whole spectrum of academic life.”
There’s no shortage of potentially applicable provisions. Howard is also no stranger to incidents with other coaches. Last year he and Maryland coach Mark Turgeon yelled at one another, which led to Howard being ejected from the game.
Even if a school doesn’t fire a coach, the incident will go into their personnel files and could be used against them at later dates. Under the labor and employment law concept of progressive discipline, an employee that breaks a contractual or workplace rule might first receive a warning. The employee is then expected to correct their misconduct. If the employee continues to engage in misconduct, the employer can more persuasively justify a “for cause” firing since the employee didn’t learn their lesson the first time. That concept was at issue in the Jacksonville Jaguars firing of Urban Meyer for repeated missteps.
(This story has been updated in the eighth paragraph with details of suspensions and fines for Howard and Gard.)