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Johnnie Vassar files antitrust lawsuit against Northwestern and NCAA

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Northwestern allegedly used “harassment, pressure, and deception” to remove Vassar from the program, according to the complaint.

NCAA Basketball: Georgia Tech at Northwestern Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

UPDATE [11:35 p.m. CT]: Al Cubbage, Northwestern’s vice president for University Relations, issued the following statement about the complaint to Inside NU: "We do not believe this claim has any legal merit. We will defend the University vigorously."

UPDATE [10:26 p.m. CT]: Head coach Chris Collins did not directly comment on the lawsuit when asked about it following Northwestern’s game against Eastern Washington. "We'll let those things be handled behind closed doors,” he said.

Former Northwestern point guard Johnnie Vassar has filed an antitrust lawsuit against the University and the NCAA, alleging that the NCAA’s transfer rules allowed Northwestern to intimidate him into transferring to another school.

The complaint, filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, alleges Vassar was “berated” by Northwestern staff, including head basketball coach Chris Collins, and was put “through a campaign of harassment, pressure, and deception,” leading to his eventual transfer.

Although he announced his intention to transfer on March 30, 2015, Vassar was unable to find a school that would accept him to play basketball if he was not eligible to play right away. Thus, he remained at Northwestern, and on scholarship.

The suit describes a variety of measures the program and athletic department used to free up Vassar’s scholarship, which was eventually transferred from athletic grant-in-aid to an academic scholarship. The University, the complaint alleges, went so far as to offer Vassar a cash payment in March of 2016 so he would “go away.”

The suit also alleges that Northwestern placed the three-star recruit in an “internship” so he could retain his athletic scholarship. The program, called the “Wildcat Internship Program” involved him working in a janitorial capacity. It also claims that Northwestern tried to falsify Vassar’s timesheets during the internship “in an effort to create grounds for revoking [Vassar’s] guaranteed athletic scholarship.”

The suit also attacks the NCAA and its transfer rules and is part of a larger lawsuit put forth by Hagens Berman against the NCAA in 2012.

Vassar, a Chicago native, played in 18 games for the Wildcats during the 2014-15 season, averaging 0.8 points and 0.4 assists in 3.9 minutes. He was a 3-star recruit — according to ESPN — out of Junipero Serra Catholic High School in California.

While it is the first time legal action has been taken against the program, Collins does have a history of players leaving the program under less-than-stellar terms.

Since Collins took over Northwestern’s basketball program in the spring of 2013, multiple players have transferred or left the program. In December of that year, big man Mike Turner would officially exit the program after taking a leave of absence in September. Just a matter of weeks later in January of 2014, center Chier Ajou would transfer.

Following that season, forward Kale Abrahamson would transfer as well. During that one year under Collins, he developed a rocky relationship with his head coach, he told Inside NU.

And, along with Abrahamson, former walk-on Aaron Liberman left the program that spring. He has since signed a non-disclosure agreement with Northwestern, keeping him from divulging any details of what went on during his time under Collins.

Then, during the 2014-15 season, walk-on Nick Segura left the program before the season finished. He later told Inside NU, "Sometimes the coaching staff would make me feel like I wasn't part of the team.”

It is not yet clear how the allegations put forth by the suit will impact Collins, athletic director Jim Phillips or the program.