It hasn’t been the best of seasons for Georgia Tech men’s basketball. The Yellow Jackets are 4–10 in the Atlantic Coast Conference and, after getting blown out at home against Virginia Tech on Saturday, they’ve now lost five in a row. Meanwhile, their head coach, Josh Pastner, is embroiled in a legal dispute that features lurid allegations of sexual assault, blackmail, smear campaigning, jilted fans and NCAA rule violations.
Last month, Pastner filed a complaint in a Pima County, Ariz., superior court against Ronald Bell and Jennifer Pendley. At its core, the complaint charges that Bell and Pendley unlawfully exploited Pastner’s kindness and generosity. They did so, Pastner contends, as part of a devious plot to extort him, terrorize his life and damage Georgia Tech’s standing with the NCAA.
Bell and Pendley view the legal controversy from an entirely different light. Bell depicts Pastner as duplicitously using him to improve relations with players in breach of NCAA rules and then casting him to the side in a moment of a convenience. Far more damaging to Pastner, who has been married since 2009, is an allegation that he sexually assaulted Pendley in 2016. In a counter-complaint filed by Pendley earlier this month, she asserts that Pastner masturbated in front of her during a hotel room encounter and then tried to force her to perform oral sex.
The fallout of the litigation could pose far-reaching consequences for not only Pastner but also for Georgia Tech basketball.
The gray line between friendship, fandom and intrusion
The nature of the relationship between Pastner, Bell and Pendley is critical to understanding their contentions. Whether a court can adequately uncover that relationship is not yet known.
According to Pastner’s complaint, Pastner isn’t certain when he first encountered Bell—an uncertainty emblematic of much of this controversy. Pastner says that Bell told him that they first met in 2007 while Pastner was a 29-year-old assistant coach at the University of Arizona (for his part, Bell says that he and Pastner first met in the mid-1990s while Pastner played basketball at Arizona).
Assuming that Pastner’s retelling is accurate, Bell approached Pastner in the McKale Center gymnasium one day and confided in him that he was addicted to painkillers. He may have also told Pastner that he was suicidal, though Bell claims that is untrue. Regardless, Pastner suggested to Bell that he visit a community center. From there, Pastner explained, Bell could gain treatment for his drug addiction and any related issues.
For Pastner, that brief encounter appeared to be the last of Ronald Bell, a seemingly random dude who came up to him one day in a gymnasium and then disappeared.
Except it wasn’t.
Fast-forward to the fall of 2013. Pastner was head coach at the University of Memphis, having taken over for John Calipari four years earlier. Out of the blue, Pastner received an email from someone named Ronald Bell. In the message, Bell expressed that he was the drug addict whom Pastner had kindly counseled in 2007. Unbeknownst to Pastner, Bell had just been released from prison after serving about four and half years on felony drug charges. It wasn’t Bell’s first interaction with criminal law, either, as he had been previously charged with burglary, theft and other offenses.
Over the next several months, Pastner and Bell would exchange emails. During that time Bell told Pastner that he was suffering from cancer and that he would appreciate Pastner’s emotional support. As an “act of kindness and compassion,” Pastner says that he invited Bell to attend Memphis’s games in the Las Vegas Invitational Tournament in Nov. 2014. Following this in person experience, Bell “became a big fan and supporter of Pastner” and of Tigers hoops. Bell believed that, by making him a fan, Pastner had once again saved his life.
To illustrate this point, in a Dec. 2015 email to Pastner, Bell wrote, “Listen to me my friend…You saved my life. Josh, manytimes I wanted to take too much of my medication and finish myself off so I wouldn’t have to suffer through the pain I was in every single day. Especially when the prognosis was not good. Well, I could never end up doing that because I ALWAYS had you and the Memphis Tigers to look forward to. Supporting you through watching the games and our communications was basically all I cared about.”
By early 2016, Bell and his girlfriend, Pendley, traveled from Arizona to Memphis to attend Tigers games. The couple also supplied various items to Pastner’s players. Those items included motivational t-shirts that incorporated expressions commonly used by Pastner in his coaching, such as “Be positive!” and “Be an energy giver!” Gifts also included snacks and candy. Pastner’s complaint details the steps he took to ensure that any benefits provided by Bell and Pendley would comply with NCAA rules. Those rules, of course, generally forbid boosters from providing items of value to student-athletes.
Like Bell, Pendley’s fandom of Pastner led to in-person interactions with him in which personal information was relayed. For instance, Pastner says that Pendley told him that she suffered from pulmonary hypertension and then asked Pastner to make a charitable donation to the Pulmonary Hypertension Association (Pastner donated $500). Pastner also says that Pendley sent cupcakes to Pastner, his wife and their children.
As told by Pastner, Bell and Pendley enjoyed holding themselves out as close and trusted friends of a prominent figure in college sports and as boosters of the programs that he coached. This perspective suggests that Bell and Pendley used Pastner and took advantage of his compassion and, perhaps, naiveté.
Yet some evidence suggests that the relationship was more reciprocal than one-way. Indeed, Pastner may have regarded Bell as a valued friend—at least some of the time. According to an in-depth story on the Pastner-Bell relationship by Alan Judd of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Pastner permitted Bell and Pendley to travel with the team, partake in pre-game meals and even visit Pastner in his home. Bell also reportedly has an inscribed basketball from Pastner in which Pastner allegedly described Bell as, “a dear, dear friend! A brother from a different mother!” While Pastner’s complaint depicts Bell as something of a grifter and opportunist, the two men may have been on far better terms.
Pastner and Bell’s friendship deteriorates after Pastner moves to Georgia Tech
Pastner asserts that Bell “began to get jealous and envious” of the access that Pastner had provided his staff after taking over the Georgia Tech basketball program in 2016. Pastner recalls Bell becoming especially angry with Ellie Cantkier, an assistant to Pastner who had rebuffed Bell’s attempts to attend a post-game meal with the team. Pastner says he warned Bell to back off but that Bell persisted. Pastner further recalls that his “siding” with Cantkier irked Bell.
Pastner charges that Bell then blackmailed Pastner: Bell told Pastner that he had evidence of Georgia Tech committing NCAA violations and that he was willing to make that evidence public. Pastner then contacted the Georgia Tech athletic department to inform the staff of Bell’s threat and also request that the school’s compliance officers investigate whether any NCAA violations occurred. Not long thereafter, Bell warned Pastner that TMZ.com was offering $55K for a story that would paint Pastner as violating NCAA rules. Bell also admonished that he planned to speak with Gary Parrish of CBS Sports. For her part, Pendley allegedly chastised Pastner for siding with Cantkier and criticized him for choosing “bros over hoes.”
Pastner then became aware that two players, Tadric Jackson and Josh Okogie, had accepted free sneakers from Bell, that Bell had taken them out to dinner and that Bell had flown them to Arizona—all of which were NCAA violations. Pastner says he had no idea those violations occurred and that Bell, in fact, instructed the players to not say anything to Pastner. Georgia Tech reported the violations to the NCAA and Jackson and Okogie were suspended.
Georgia Tech retained prominent sports attorney and former federal prosecutor Paul Kelly of the law firm Jackson Lewis to investigate Bell’s allegations. During the interview, Bell, according to Pastner’s complaint, told Kelly, “I tried to settle this with Coach . . . He could have avoided this whole thing. I gave him every opportunity. All he had to do was have his attorney or agent call me and we could have worked this out.”
Bell also claimed to Kelly that, if adequately compensated, he could stop CBS Sports from publishing a damaging story on Bell’s allegations. “I think I can stop the CBS reporter from writing the story, or at least slow him down,” Bell asserted. “If I get paid what I’m owed, I’ll just call him back and tell him I made the whole thing up.” The CBS Sports story would run on Nov. 7, 2017. In it, Bell claimed that Pastner clearly knew about the NCAA violations as they occurred.
Soon thereafter, Bell renewed contact with attorneys from Jackson Lewis. He demanded that Georgia Tech pay Bell for his alleged work on behalf of Pastner and Georgia Tech (there does not appear to be any record of Bell working for Pastner or Georgia Tech). According to Pastner’s complaint, one of those attorneys, Gregg Clifton, encouraged Bell to cooperate fully and truthfully with NCAA investigators. In subsequent texts to Jackson Lewis attorneys, Bell claimed that Pastner had committed an unspecified but nonetheless serious felony. He warned that he would tell the media about it. Bell later told NCAA investigators that Pastner had sexually assaulted Pendley.
Bell claiming that Pastner had committed sexual assault prompted Pastner’s attorney, Scott Tompsett, to contact law enforcement. Tompsett relayed that, in his view, Bell was engaging in blackmail and extortion. Tompsett further stressed that Bell was defaming Pastner with a slanderous story.
Why the allegations—and litigation—could impact Pastner’s contract with Georgia Tech and whether he’s fired with or without cause
At this time it does not appear that Pastner’s job is in jeopardy. During a Feb. 12 podcast hosted by The Atlanta Journal Constitution columnist Jeff Schultz and WBS-TV sports director Zach Klien. Georgia Tech athletic director Todd Stansbury described Pastner as a “great coach and a great person.” This endorsement was made four days after Pendley counter-sued Pastner, meaning Pendley’s allegations against Pastner did not seem to alter Stansbury’s view of Pastner.
Still, from Pastner’s perspective, allegations that he committed sexual assault and—less importantly—masterminded NCAA violations are the types of allegations that could, among other things, tarnish his name and eventually make it more likely that Georgia Tech fires him.
If Georgia Tech fires Pastner, the grounds that the school selects for the firing would have a dramatic impact on the amount of money that it would owe. Pastner’s contract with Georgia Tech reportedly runs through the 2022–23 season and pays him, on average, approximately $1.9 million a year. A memorandum of understanding, which is a precursor to a contract, between Pastner and Georgia Tech is available in an article authored by Joey Weaver for From The Rumble Seat.
It’s possible that even if Pastner had not become embroiled in a legal controversy, Georgia Tech might consider a change at head coach. In Pastner’s first season in 2016–17, the Yellow Jackets finished 8–10 in the ACC and failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament. This year the team is in free fall. If Georgia Tech decided to fire Pastner because his team has failed to live up expectations, Pastner would be fired “without cause.” Such a firing means that Pastner would be let go not for any misconduct or unethical behavior. Instead, the firing would reflect that the school is no longer satisfied with the direction of the team and wants someone else to take over. In such a scenario, Pastner’s contract with Georgia Tech would specify the amount of money that he would be paid out on the remainder of the contract. The aforementioned term sheet indicated that, depending on the year in which firing occurs, the payout percentages range from 60% to 100% per year (whether those percentages are in the actual contract are not known; Pastner also received a one-year contract extension in 2017 that could have altered those percentages).
Alternatively, if Georgia Tech concludes that Pastner’s conduct violated contractual obligations to maintain a program in compliance with NCAA rules and/or violated contractual obligations to refrain from conduct that damages the reputation of the school, Georgia Tech could elect to fire Pastner “with cause” (also called “for cause”). This is the approach that the University of Louisville used to fire Rick Pitino. It is one where the school saves a great deal of money: the coach isn’t paid any amount on the remainder of the contract.
The dueling legal claims
Given the potential impact of Pastner’s litigation on his Georgia Tech contract, the stakes for Pastner in the case are quite high. He asserts that Bell and Pendley have defamed him by lying about a sexual encounter and NCAA violations. Pastner further charges that Bell and Pendley intentionally inflicted emotional distress. To that end, Pastner argues that Bell and Pendley fabricated a storyline that was intended to terrorize him and make it more likely that he be publicly humiliated and fired by Georgia Tech. Pastner also asserts that Bell and Pendley conspired with one another to unlawfully attempt to force Pastner to capitulate to their demands.
As to potential damages, Pastner insists that he has already been badly damaged. The allegations, whether ultimately proven or dismissed, have sullied his reputation. Potential damages would only climb if Georgia Tech fires Pastner and if the NCAA punishes Georgia Tech.
Pendley, who is represented by attorney Paul Gattone, offers a radically different perspective. Her complaint depicts Pastner as sexually aggressive, physically abusive and obsessed with her.
Pendley says that on Feb. 9, 2016, she and Bell stayed in a room at the Hilton Americas Hotel in downtown Houston. The Tigers were scheduled to play against the University of Houston Cougars the next day. According to Pendley, Pastner entered the room in order to discuss a journalist who was planning to write about Pastner and Bell’s friendship.
After the discussion ended, Bell went to take a shower. Pastner, Pendley recalls, didn’t leave the room. Instead, he began to stroke her hair and then pulled his penis out of his pants. He then, Pendley’s complaint charges, “began masturbating in front of Pendley, while holding onto her shoulder.” Pendley says she “began to cry” at that point and “beg Pastner to stop.” Pastner then, according to Pendley, “grabbed the back of Pendley’s head and attempted to force her head down, attempting to force Pendley’s mouth onto Pastner’s penis.”
Pendley’s complaint mentions other alleged incidents, including where Pastner is accused of forcing Pendley against a wall and fondling her breasts and where he is allegedly pushed Pendley against a set of stairs so that he could touch her vaginal area. Pendley’s complaint contends that Pastner committed sexual battery, sexual assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
It does not appear that Pastner was investigated by law enforcement, as no such record is referenced in any of the legal filings. In a statement, Pastner’s attorney, Tompsett, calls Pendley’s allegations “false and malicious.” He also highlights that “it was Mr. Bell—not Ms. Pendley—who first alleged [to NCAA investigators] that Josh assaulted Ms. Pendley.”
The risks of the litigation, especially with the NCAA watching
All of the parties to the lawsuit are taking on risk. Pretrial discovery could produce damaging and embarrassing evidence, such as inappropriate text messages and insensitive emails. The parties are also subject to answering personal questions under oath that could yield awkward admissions.
For Pastner, any evidence or testimony that tarnishes his reputation could impact his employment with Georgia Tech. It could also prompt the NCAA to investigate further. The NCAA is likely concerned that, at a minimum, Pastner and Georgia Tech officials seemingly failed to stop Bell from becoming so close to student-athletes. Also, while the NCAA is likely pleased to see Georgia Tech launch an investigation into alleged sexual assaults, the NCAA could open a separate and more independent probe.
Given this potential fallout, it might make sense for Pastner to reach an out-of-court settlement with Bell and Pendley. But short of Bell and Pendley retracting their claims, they may not have much to offer Pastner in a settlement.
If no settlement is reached and if Pastner ultimately prevails, it’s unclear if Bell and Pendley would have the financial wherewithal to pay Pastner what could amount to millions of dollars in damages. That may not matter to Pastner. As explained above, his interest in suing is likely motivated far more by a desire to correct the record and clear his—and Georgia Tech’s name—than a desire to gain monetary compensation. Alternatively, if Bell and Pendley prevail, Pastner might have the resources to pay off a judgment. However, Pastner would likely appeal a losing verdict.
Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also an attorney and the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, and co-author with Ed O'Bannon of the new book Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA