Kingsport Times News Wednesday, November 26, 2014
Sports

'Bama fan who sued NCAA recounts struggle

September 17th, 2013 12:23 pm by DeWAYNE PATTERSON, The Daily Sentinel

'Bama fan who sued NCAA recounts struggle

SCOTTSBORO, Ala. (AP) — On a cool November day, a week past Thanksgiving, a group walked out of the Jackson County Courthouse. Cameras snapped and people gazed as University of Alabama fan Ray Keller, surrounded by a group of attorneys, stepped outside.

Only moments earlier, a jury awarded Keller $5 million in his defamation and invasion of privacy lawsuit against the NCAA. It was the largest judgment from a civil jury in Jackson County history.

It was a good day, in the late fall of 2007, for Keller. For a moment, at least, he had defeated the all-powerful NCAA; wiping away the pain he said the organization has caused him five years earlier.

"I felt like we wasn't even as big as David was against Goliath," Keller said that day. "My legal team fought so hard for me."

Today, the fight is over. And Keller is a man on the outside at 'Bama.

In 2002, in a news conference the NCAA publicly announced its punishment against Alabama for recruiting violations, costing the school scholarship reductions, a two-year bowl ban and five years of probation.

In its infractions report, the NCAA didn't publicly identify Keller, an Alabama booster, nor two other boosters, Logan Young and Wendell Smith, referring to them only as representatives A, B and C. The three boosters were identified in the media.

Alabama, going for a third consecutive national championship this season, was in a different place in 2002, on the brink of the death penalty for repeated violations, according to the NCAA.

As part of its punishment, the school disassociated itself from Keller, Young and Smith.

Keller sued the NCAA, claiming he was slandered and libeled after being referred to as a "rogue booster," ''parasite" and "pariah" during the news conference.

Sitting in his office today, at Keller Lumber in Stevenson, Keller looks back and said he felt he had no other choice in suing the NCAA, adding it cost him business deals and smeared his name in his own community.

"They misrepresented the truth," he says. "The sad thing is I'm still disassociated (from Alabama). I'm not wanting to be associated, I just want my name off the bad list."

Keller filed suit in 2004, after he said letters written by his attorney to the NCAA asking for a retraction were ignored.

The case went to trial in 2007, lasting a total of six weeks and going through two judges after the first had a heart attack outside court.

The trial had a little of everything, including former Alabama coach Gene Stallings and sports personality Paul Finebaum, testifying on behalf of Keller.

Keller stayed on the witness stand at least a week and what seemed even longer, battling back and forth with NCAA attorney Allen Dodd of Fort Payne.

At times it was comical. At more times it was draining on everyone involved.

NCAA attorneys depicted Keller as a rabid fan, caught up in Alabama football so much he purposely broke NCAA rules trying to lure the best players to the school.

He was accused of giving "$100 handshakes" to Alabama recruits. Keller contended he was lumped in with boosters Young, of Memphis, Tenn. and Smith, of Chattanooga, Tenn., both now deceased.

To this day, Keller denies any wrongdoing.

"They wanted Logan Young," he says. "They never wanted me. They knew we were friends. He lived in Memphis. I didn't know those kids or coaches."

Following the verdict, the NCAA appealed. In May 2008, a judge threw out the $5 million verdict, ruling jurors reached a verdict through "the product of passion and prejudice."

The Alabama Supreme Court dismissed Keller's appeal and a judge denied Keller's request for a new trial, bringing an end to the saga.

Ray Keller grew up in the country, in Big Coon he says, where the whippoorwills came out at night. He was one of three children to Allie and Raymond Keller, who grew up during the Depression and taught their children working hard is what mattered most.

"I grew up picking and hoeing cotton," said Keller. "I wasn't very good at it and hated it."

Where the family lived, after dark a vehicle spotted meant one of three things: somebody was lost, sick or trying to steal something.

Keller grew up loving sports, hooked after watching a Stevenson-Bridgeport game, on Thanksgiving Day, as a youngster.

He wound up, just as he imagined, playing for Stevenson, serving as a team captain. Keller graduated in 1966, attended Northeast Alabama Community College and later Jacksonville State University before coming home to work.

By 1974, he was in the sawmill business, a career continues.

Keller's first Alabama game in person was the 1979 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, the night of the iconic "Goal line stand," and Alabama 14-7 win for the national championship.

By 1982, Keller was an original member of Tide Pride. He and his family attended all games, home and away.

"My family was young," he says. "We would leave late on Friday night (after the high school game). I've been everywhere."

Today, Keller says it all seems like a bad dream. He remains disassociated from Alabama, no longer able to contribute or have season tickets. His legal fight is over.

"They took my two seats and my wife's two seats," says Keller. "She was never accused of anything."

Keller said his family never wanted him to pursue a lawsuit.

"It was hard on them," he says. "I regret that. If I had it to do again, I don't know if I would or not."

His enthusiasm has dampened, he admits.

Keller might go to a couple of 'Bama home games a year now.

"If I can find tickets," he says. "I used to go to every game."


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