DENVER (CBS4) – A Colorado Springs man won a $2.5 million judgement against the state’s high school sports organization on Wednesday. A jury determined William “Trey” Harris was the victim of racial discrimination when he was fired from his assistant coach position at Sand Creek High School in 2017.
Judge R. Brooke Jackson, following the jury’s direction, ordered the Colorado High School Activities Association to pay $200,000 for economic damages caused by the discrimination, $1.3 million for non-economic damages caused by the discrimination, and $1 million for punitive damages.
Punitive damages are a monetary penalty designed to punish the actions of a defendant.
According to court documents, Harris was an assistant coach on the Sand Creek High School boys basketball team during the 2016-17 season. In December of that season, as the team’s success buoyed hopes of an appearance in the state playoffs, the team’s then-head coach, Robert Hawkins, attempted to add another player. This player, identified as “RM” in the court documents, was a senior from another school who hoped to transfer to the Sand Creek program.
Court documents describe a conversation between then-CHSAA Commissioner Paul Angelico and then-Sand Creek Athletic Director Jared Felice about Coach Hawkins’s interest in “RM’s” transfer. As stated in the documents, Angelico suggested to Felice that a special exemption to the transfer rule would allow the player to practice with the team.
Felice, however, misinterpreted the conversation to indicate the player could also play in varsity games.
Upon the advice of Felice, his school’s athletic director, Coach Hawkins put the player in a varsity game on Jan. 2, 2017. This occurred before any transfer applications had been completed or finalized.
CHSAA representatives were made aware of the ineligible player violation. The court documents indicate Felice then sent a letter to CHSAA – a letter which Assistant Coach Harris had no knowledge of – falsely claiming that “RM” had been recruited to the team by Harris. CHSAA bylaws do not allow a transfer player to “follow” a coach to another team.
Harris had established himself years earlier as a trainer for up-and-coming basketball players. He is owner and operator of PLUTO Basketball, a talent development program. “RM” joined one of those camps in 2014.
But the court documents state that Harris, when told by Coach Hawkins that “RM” would be transferring, did not approve of the move, nor of playing “RM” in games. Harris told investigators he felt adding “RM” to the team was unfair to the current members of the team.
“RM”‘s transfer, in fact, created a rift between the two coaches, according to a summation of testimony.
Eventually, CHSAA placed Sand Creek on restriction, meaning the team would not be allowed to participate in the state playoffs. But it also left the door open for Sand Creek to take its own “corrective action.”
During a school hallway encounter, the head coach and the school’s AD informed Harris that he would no longer be allowed to attend practices, should not attend games, and recommended he contact the NAACP, per the court documents.
They advised Harris that, in their opinion, CHSAA was targeting him “because he was Black,” as Harris recollected.
On Jan. 20, Felice notified CHSAA that Sand Creek had forfeited the Jan. 2 game, removed “RM” from the team, and dismissed Harris.
CHSAA lifted its restriction on the Sand Creek team 10 days later.
According to Colorado Springs CBS affiliate KKTV, all but one member of the Sand Creek varsity basketball team was suspended for protesting Harris’s dismissal during its next game.
Harris had turned down Sand Creek’s head coaching position in 2016. He lasted three months as the Scorpions’ assistant.
In September 2018, he filed a lawsuit against Hawkins, Felice, Angelico, and Falcon School District 49 and its human resources director and superintendent. And CHSAA.
A year later, according to the court documents, he reached an undetermined settlement with almost all of them.
Angelico retired in the summer of 2017. He was later dismissed from Harris’s litigation.
CHSAA, however, stayed on board and fought the lawsuit. The organization’s lawyers requested a dismissal, but Judge Jackson wrote in a July 2020 ruling, “A reasonable jury could find that, based on the facts, CHSAA was aware of District 49’s discrimination against Mr. Harris.”
Two and half years in the making, the trial began April 20 and was conducted in eight days.
The legal team for Harris released the following response when contacted by CBS4 about the trial:
After almost a full week of testimony and evidence, an independent jury held that CHSAA’s role in terminating Trey Harris was not only unfair but also a result of racial discrimination. Not only did the jury send a clear message with a $2.5 million verdict, they also demanded that CHSAA issue a formal apology to Mr. Harris clearing him of any wrong doing. According to Trey Harris’ attorney Diane King of King & Greisen, LLP, “Despite the enormous evidence of a system riddled with racial injustice, CHSAA still refuses to admit any responsibility. Instead, we continue to hear the same platitudes that we have heard for decades about how the system is fair and ‘equitable.’ That tells us all that we still have a long way to go. The first step is accepting responsibility.”
CHSAA’s attorney Alex Halpern provided the following statement:
“CHSAA exists to level the playing field and challenge individuals to meet their highest potential in all arenas of life. CHSAA condemns discrimination in all its forms. In our one hundred years of existence we have always strived to create a positive and equitable environment, and we look forward to carrying that tradition into the future. Though we do not believe the evidence supports the Jury’s decision, we wish Mr. Harris and his family the best. We are currently considering the options available to respond to the decision.”
Harris is a native of Colorado Springs. He played for Mitchell High School and later at McCook Community College in Nebraska. It was there he made 44% of the shots he made from behind the three-point line and cemented the nickname “Trey.”
Harris was arrested in 2019 for the alleged assault of a referee at PLUTO Basketball game.
Felice is now the athletic director at the Fountain-Fort Carson school district. “RM” was identified by KKTV as Romeo Maestas.
Sand Creek finished the 2017 season with a 19-6 record.