The following article was written by Benjamin Haynes, Esq.
Recently, the NCAA changed their rule with regards to allowing a University to only offer a one-year grant in aid to a student-athlete. The rule now permits schools to offer multi-year scholarships to athletes. However, it is not mandatory for schools to do so. Therefore, the rule change does not solve all disputes that could potentially arise from this issue.
For instance, I can picture a coach telling a prospective student-athlete, “You will have a scholarship to this school for your four year college career. I am initially only offering a one-year grant in aid, but only because it’s how I have always done things and I am not going to change that. But trust me, you can have a scholarship for as long as you want.” The student-athlete takes the coach’s word for it, and later does not get his scholarship renewed for whatever reason. Most student-athletes have been without recourse once this occurs because the NCAA rules govern and it is not mandatory to offer a four-year scholarship. However, there may be another course of action a student-athlete may pursue. This involves the cause of action of breach of contract and specifically the doctrine called promissory estoppel.
“It is well recognized that promissory estoppel is not a “cause of action” in itself, but is a subset of and a theory of recovery in breach of contract actions.” Hill v. Mayers, 104 Or.App. 629, 631, 802 P.2d 694 (1990), rev. den. 311 Or. 187, 808 P.2d 91 (1991); City of Ashland v. Hoffarth, 84 Or.App. 265, 270, 733 P.2d 925, rev. den. 303 Or. 483, 737 P.2d 1249 (1987).
Promissory estoppel is essentially a doctrine relied upon by courts to enforce promises that have been made and then subsequently relied upon. A cause of action for promissory estoppel requires proof as follows:
- An unambiguous promise;
- Reliance on that promise;
- The plaintiff’s reliance was expected and foreseeable; and
- The plaintiff actually relied on that promise to their detriment.
Applying such, a student-athlete who was promised by his coach that he would have a four-year scholarship could argue the above elements as follows:
- The promise was unambiguous because the coach’s promise specified a four-year scholarship.
- The student athlete relied on that promise because he chose to attend the school and actually attended the school relying on the four-year scholarship promise.
- The student athlete’s reliance was expected and foreseeable to occur in such a situation.
- The student-athlete actually relied on the promise to his detriment because he chose to attend the university and now he is without a scholarship for the remainder of his college career.
While it sounds like an easy win, it should be noted that the burden which must be established in order to win on a promissory estoppel theory is very high. “To support a finding of equitable estoppel the facts necessary to constitute it must be shown with certainty and not taken by argument or inference, nor supplied by intendment, but clearly and satisfactorily proved. This is a significantly higher degree of proof than by the greater weight of the evidence.” Jarrard v. Associates Discount Corp., 99 So.2d 272 (Fla 1957); Barber v. Hatch, 380 So.2d 536 (Fla. 5th DCA 1980). Therefore, the student-athlete will have to establish the facts of the broken promise in a clear and satisfactory manner in order to overcome the burden.
In response, the Coach and the University could respond by stating that while a four-year grant in aid was promised, the actual contract was for a one-year grant in aid. “Promissory estoppel is not available as a remedy when parties have a written contract addressing the relevant issues.” Univ. of Miami v. Intuitive Surgical, Inc., 166 F. App’x. 450, 454 (11th Cir.2006). The coach would argue that the contractual language addresses the issue of how long the promise for grant in aid will last, and therefore promissory estoppel would not apply.
If a student-athlete was successful in his claim of promissory estoppel, then there are three approaches to the issue of what measure of damages are available to the litigant who establishes a claim. They are, “ the reliance measure,  the expectancy measure, and  a flexible or discretionary approach.” Mary E. Becker, Promissory Estoppel Damages, 16 Hofstra L. Rev. 131, 131 n. 1 (1987). The reliance measure is the plurality view across the nation.
According to the reliance measure, under promissory estoppel a plaintiff may recover only reliance damages. That is, “the amount necessary to restore the injured party to the position it would have occupied had the promise not been made.” Id. Therefore, the student-athlete would argue that the appropriate damages under this measure would be to pay for the entirety of costs the four-year scholarship would incur.
While the application of promissory estoppel sounds good in theory, it is not an easy doctrine to establish in court, especially under the circumstances of a student-athlete receiving such a promise from a coach when there is a written signed contract to the contrary. However, it is a possible route that a student-athlete could potentially take in order to recover money damages for the broken promise.