On the afternoon of Feb. 28, 2001, University of South Florida President Judy L. Genshaft was meeting with Paul Griffin, the university's athletic director at the time, and Lee Roy Selmon, a former professional football star who would soon replace Griffin.
A USF attorney interrupted. Accounts vary of what was uttered next. But there can be little dispute that Associate General Counsel Olga J. Joanow's message marked the beginning of the end for Griffin at USF.
"We've got a problem," Joanow is said to have announced. "Hiram's talking."
Hiram R. Green used to work for Griffin. Two decades ago, he co-captained the USF men's basketball team. But Green had decided enough was enough.
Risking his professional future at USF, the 41-year-old Green went public with allegations that Genshaft and others assisted a coverup by Griffin of complaints about racists coaching women's basketball. Green has become a key witness for African-American players who claim in lawsuits against USF that their fired coach, Jerry Ann Winters, discriminated against them during campus recruiting visits, out-of-town travel, and in other ways that ultimately prevented them from enjoying the same opportunities as white teammates. So far, Green's revelations have indirectly contributed to the dismissals of Winters and Griffin. Could Genshaft suffer the same fate?
Speculation is swirling already about Genshaft's professional future. Her proposed firing of Sami Al-Arian, a tenured professor branded a threat to campus security due to alleged terrorist ties, has played poorly in academia.
Evidence emerging from the basketball lawsuits, which may require a big monetary payout if USF loses, won't help Genshaft's situation:
Green claims Genshaft refused his advice that USF launch a comprehensive inquiry into racism allegations within the women's basketball program; Genshaft placed Green in a better-paying USF job after he clashed with Griffin over the allegations, a move that Green has suggested might have been made to buy his silence;
Green contends that Genshaft and Griffin enlisted Green's good friend, current Athletic Director Lee Roy Selmon, to repair USF's relationship with the local black community after his coverup claim became public.
The basketball players are represented by Jonathan L. Alpert. A Tampa lawyer who loves gigging powerful institutions, Alpert has gotten rich splitting big court settlements with powerless clients. The barrister is generally despised by the Tampa establishment for his choice of targets and other antics.
A common gripe is that Alpert "tries his cases in the media." Well, that damned Alpert is doing it again. Alpert is sharing with Weekly Planet some of the testimony and records he has extracted from USF officials in the basketball lawsuits. The documents are part of the case that Alpert expects to put on when the suits go to trial, perhaps as soon as April.
The pretrial sparring has gotten personal between Alpert and Thomas M. Gonzalez, the ubiquitous labor attorney USF officials hired to defend them. That might reflect the high stakes of the case.
In November, Alpert accused Gonzalez of badgering Green during a deposition. Gonzalez invited Alpert to take it up with a federal judge, who has been forced to referee the more contentious pretrial interrogations.
"That's fine, Mr. Alpert," said Gonzalez. "You need to get over to the federal courthouse. I've just been there and we can go whenever you want to."
"Yeah," Alpert replied. "I saw you just lost a case over there."
"Uh-huh," Gonzalez shot back, "which means that I've lost one more case than you've tried."
Alpert said he has tried many cases over the years. "But I do think Willie Gary is a better trial lawyer than am I," added Alpert, referring to famed Stuart civil-rights lawyer Willie E. Gary, who has joined him as co-counsel for the plaintiffs.
During a Feb. 5 interview with the Planet, Gonzalez predicted Alpert will have a tough time trying the basketball case in court because he doesn't have a case.
"Mr. Alpert wants this tried everywhere but where it should be — in a courtroom," said Gonzalez, who also represents USF in the Al-Arian controversy as well as the Hillsborough County School Board in a dispute with whistleblower Doug Erwin. Gonzalez charged that Alpert furnishes portions of the record of the basketball litigation to the news media through leaks or press conferences to create a distorted picture of rampant indifference to racism at USF. (Gonzalez made some deposition transcripts of his own available to the Planet.)
In fact, Gonzalez said none of the alleged racist behavior by women's basketball coaches occurred in the presence of black players. Thus, the students did not find themselves in an environment hostile to their educational or athletic ambitions, he said. If there was segregation of black and white players, Gonzalez said it was by their choice, not by a racist coach's fiat.