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The Aidan Howard allegations: Three things to remember when following a lawsuit

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Don’t freak out, but take this seriously

NCAA Football: Richmond at Virginia Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

The Aidan Howard lawsuit—against the University, the University president, the Athletics Director, two UVA football coaches, and two UVA players—has caught lots of us by surprise. Here are three things to remember as you follow the story.

For now, they’re just allegations.

A complaint is just the first salvo in any legal battle. They can be designed to shock and awe the other side, setting out the strongest possible position to allow for negotiating a settlement down the line. You can allege (almost) anything in a complaint, so long as you’ve got some fact to point to that arguably supports the allegation.

If they’re true, they’re really bad.

Coach Mendenhall has made a big deal out of the character of the guys in the program, and how character will be one of the core attributes of the guys he and his assistants are trying to attract. It’s hard to buy what Mendenhall is selling if even some of what Howard alleges turns out to be true.

But Howard has also made legal claims that have serious repercussions. A Title IX claim doesn't just carry with it the possibility of losing a lawsuit. As anyone in the Virginia universe knows after following the Rolling Stone story, the Department of Education and the Department of Justice can impose administrative sanctions for violating Title IX or regulations associated with it. Same goes for Howard’s Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) claim: giving money damages in a courtroom may turn out to be the least of UVA’s worries.

We are a LONG way from this being done.

This is kind of a logical corollary to the first two points. Lawsuits take forever, especially complicated federal ones against state institutions and employees. Even if the suit settles, there will almost certainly be a University internal investigation, and possibly investigations by federal agencies. Maybe even the NCAA.

I’m a big West Wing fan. In Season 2, President Bartlet tells his White House counsel, Oliver Babish, that he has multiple sclerosis and hadn't divulged it during the campaign. After Babish and Bartlet talk for a while, chief of staff Leo McGarry, eager to get an assessment of the damage, asks, “What do you think?” Babish replies, “I am nowhere close to being able to answer that question.”

As a lawyer, I’ve adopted that as almost my default response to those types of questions. (Which makes being a friend of mine SUPER fun.) I would advise every Virginia fan, alumnus/alumna, supporter or follower of any stripe to embrace that mantra as well. We need facts that right now, we just can’t have. You can form opinions along the way, of course. But reserve judgment until we know a lot more.