LOCK HAVEN - A defamation suit filed by Lock Haven University Athletic Director Sharon E. Taylor has, in its roots, an ardent enthusiasm for all things sports.
The direction of athletics at LHU, a program under intense scrutiny by alumni, athletes, supporters and others, appears to have sparked a battle royal between a local group and Taylor.
Whether the actions of Preserve the Legacy of Wrestling (PLOW), the local group in question, overstepped the bounds of civil law is now a matter for the courts.
What is clear from the legal action, filed earlier this month, is Taylor's desire to preserve her reputation against intense criticism, coupled with a local group's strong desire for change in the LHU athletic program.
The evidence of those two contrasting viewpoints can be found in a 58-page document filed in the Clinton County Court of Common Pleas.
The spark that, from court documents, appears to have lit the fuse in the long-smoldering debate, was a document called "Lock Haven University Athletics, At a Crossroads."
In a "who we are" segment, PLOW said it was comprised of alumni and former students.
In that document, PLOW complained of a "completely deteriorated" football program culminating in a winless season, a breakdown in leadership within the athletic department, a less than competitive wrestling program, problems with fundraising for sports, the elimination of a men's swimming team, and the "horribly ill-timed and inhumane cancellation" of the university's baseball season on the eve of a playoff run.
The document also called for Taylor to be replaced.
The principle parties in the complaint:
n Plaintiff Sharon Taylor, 524 Park Ave., Lock Haven, who filed the complaint against:
n Austin Shanfelter, of 16845 Fox Den, Fort Myers, Fla.
n Ronald Bowes, of 220 W. Water St., Lock Haven.
n Neil Turner, of 510 E. Guardlock Drive, Lock Haven.
n Thane Turner, of 222 Deer Field Lane, Lock Haven.
n Jerry Swope, of 857 W. Bald Eagle St., Lock Haven.
n Todd Bartley, general manager of ESPN 104.1, 210 Market St., Suite 207, Williamsport
n Preserve the Legacy of Wrestling (PLOW), an organization comprised of Lock Haven University alumni, former student athletes and community members.
PLOW was formed as an organization about May 2009 with the stated purpose to ensure the continued success of Lock Haven University athletic programs, particularly the wrestling program.
PLOW and its leadership, Shanfelter, Bowes, the Turners, Swope and Bartley were critical of the Lock Haven University athletic department and Taylor.
The suit alleges the defendants have published and distributed literature containing numerous defamatory falsities and inaccuracies in order to portray the plaintiff in a negative light and to accomplish the organization's ultimate goal of forcing the plaintiff out of her position as athletic director.
The suit alleges PLOW and the individual defendants have also used various media outlets, including ESPN Radio and The Express, as a means for publishing and disseminating their defamatory statements about Taylor.
The Crossroads Pamphlet
The Crossroads pamphlet was created and distributed by PLOW and titled "Lock Haven University Athletics in a Crossroads."
Published on or about July 12, 2009, it was distributed to the PLOW membership and appeared on PLOW's Web site.
The pamphlet described what PLOW and its members viewed as problems with the Lock Haven University wrestling program and the athletics department in general.
Taylor alleges that in the Crossroads, were "a multitude of misstatements and outright lies" about Taylor and her performance as athletic director.
The alleged libelous statements:
n The Crossroads publication stated "$140,000 in donations was lost because alumni feel the athletic director has not provided direction in athletic program."
n The publication states "There also is an ongoing question about a shortfall of approximately $20,000 in student government funds that were directed to the football program. No one can seem to account for this money," suggesting that these funds have in some way been misappropriated.
n The publication states a student-athlete, Landis Wright, reported NCAA regulation violations to Taylor, and, as a result, the student-athlete's scholarship was revoked.
n The publication states the men's swimming team coach filed a lawsuit against Lock Haven University and the athletic director for wrongful termination following the elimination of the men's swimming program.
n The publication states some sports at Lock Haven University are failing due to a lack of support on part of the athletic director.
According to the legal filing, the statements were false because:
n There is nothing to substantiate any loss in donations was in any way attributable to Taylor.
n There was no shortfall funds for the football program.
n No NCAA regulation violations were reported to Taylor by Landis Wright or anyone acting on his behalf. Wright's failure to receive a scholarship was due to his refusal to properly sign all paperwork which was a prerequisite to participating in the wrestling program. Wright appeared in Taylor's office on two occasions for the purpose of signing said paperwork. On both occasions, Wright's father had written statements on the documents such as "signed under duress." Upon review by Lock Haven University's legal counsel, the paperwork was rejected, and the deadline for completing the paperwork and joining the team lapsed.
n No lawsuit has been filed against Lock Haven University or its athletic director by the former men's swimming team coach. In fact, this program was eliminated over 33 years ago, in 1976, due to a lack of student participation.
n No "failures" of any sports programs are attributable to Taylor. Instead, a number of factors influence the success of each program, including, coaching, recruiting, and the ability to generate funds for the program.
The 'Viewpoint' article:
On Oct. 28, 2009 an op-ed page article appeared in The Express entitled "Time for change in LHU athletic department is at hand." The submission was authored by Shanfelter and Swope.
The article criticized Taylor and her performance as athletic director and concluded Taylor should be replaced. The lawsuit says in doing so, the defendants made several false and defamatory allegations against Taylor, including:
n Stating "the athletic director said she is considering dropping the wrestling program to Division II status." This allegation is false.
n Suggesting allegations of NCAA violations were improperly investigated under Taylor's direction. Taylor claims all allegations of NCAA violations during her tenure as athletic director have been handled through the process that is the standard procedure established by the NCAA: through an internal investigation and report.
The 'Emergency Update'
On Oct. 28, 2009, PLOW released an "Emergency Update" bulletin, which was published and disseminated by David La Torre, the owner of a public relations firm in Harrisburg.
According to the legal action, the bulletin again targeted Taylor and her performance as athletic director, contained a multitude of false and defamatory statements about Taylor, including the following:
n The publication said Taylor has informed new wrestling coach Robbie Waller, as well as the men's and women's basketball coaches, their programs would receive no university funding for scholarships next year. "We believe this directly contradicts her promise to Waller that scholarships would be fully funded by the university for two years... It is very apparent the athletic director did the old 'bait and switch' to Robbie Waller to get him to take the job in order to cover the program's shortfalls under her watch."
n The publication also stated "Now the coaches are being told they have to raise the money (for scholarships) themselves."
n Finally, the publication alleged Taylor, at the same time, was "preparing to establish the women's field hockey team into a new conference (resulting in significant additional expenses related to travel)" and "this is a true example of the athletic director's unequal treatment history."
Those statements were false, the suit alleges, due to the following:
n Taylor never made any promises to Robbie Weller, nor to any other coach, that the university would fully fund scholarships. The established protocol at Lock Haven University (is) coaches are responsible for securing a substantial portion of the funds for their program's scholarships... Instead, this is the procedure which has been in place at the university for years.
n The change in conference for the women's field hockey team is actually expected to result in a reduction in expenditures for the university. Moreover, Taylor, throughout her tenure with the university, has never displayed an "unequal treatment history" with regard to the funding of athletic programs.
The LHU Foundation
In late October 2009, PLOW released a publication entitled "LHU Foundation Creates Special Fund," which was published and disseminated by La Torre.
The publication said Taylor since rescinded her promise to fully fund scholarships in the wrestling program for two years. "We have heard from a lot of former LHU wrestlers who previously didn't participate in PLOW, but are now prepared to help us with our cause."
Again, the suit alleges, Taylor never promised full university funding for wrestling scholarships, and the statement by PLOW was made in an attempt to portray Taylor in a negative light and to make it appear that she is untrustworthy and dishonest.
Todd Bartley, general manager of ESPN Radio, Williamsport is a "member" of PLOW "and/or has been actively involved in the PLOW organization from its inception," the suit alleges.
According to the legal action, Bartley, in his role at ESPN radio, has used the station as an outlet to disseminate the false information provided by PLOW.
Bartley has allowed his name and that of ESPN to be associated with the public effort to discredit Taylor, the suit alleges.
Concurrent with with those actions, the suit says, ESPN has published on its Web site www.espnwilliamsport.com, a document entitled "Taylor and LHU Lose Another Court Battle."
The article was based on a press release from a lawsuit filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania by Joseph Patrick Guerriero against Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.
The legal action said Taylor is not and never was a party to the lawsuit. "Bartley and/or ESPN embellished the headline for the purpose of discrediting Taylor to falsely attribute the involvement in the lawsuit to her," the suit alleges.
There are seven specific counts based upon the information above.
Five allege libel, one asks for damages due to the "infliction of emotional distress," and a final action alleges a conspiracy among the defendants.
In each count, the plaintiff alleges:
n False statements were made with full knowledge that they were false and with reckless disregard as to whether they were false.
By spreading false information concerning Taylor and the performance of her job duties, the defendants intentionally and improperly damaged Taylor's good name and reputation.
There is no privilege or justification for the conduct.
n The statements about Taylor's conduct and character adversely affect her fitness for her profession.
n The actions as described above were intentional, willful, and wanton, and they were made with actual malice. Each count request the court enter judgment in her favor and against defendants setting damages in excess of $50,000, "as well as punitive damages, and order any other such relief as the Court deems just and proper under the circumstances, including interest and costs of litigation."
The action was filed on Taylor's behalf by attorney Kathleen V. Yurchak of State College.