Three years after being kept from joining the University of Utah football team because he is a convicted felon who served jail time for arson, Sione Havili is suing athletic director Chris Hill and former university president Bernie Machen.
The former all-state running back from East High contends in a lawsuit filed Friday in Third District Court that Hill and Machen denied him his civil rights when they ignited a controversy and arguably changed the course of school sports history by refusing to allow him to walk on to the team seven months after he was released from the Salt Lake County Jail in 2001.
"Mr. Havili has been discriminated against and treated differently than other students," the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit contends that Hill and Machen made an "arbitrary and capricious" decision to keep Havili off the team, even though he had "met all . . . eligibility requirements to participate in intercollegiate athletics." It also claims that Hill violated Havili's right to privacy by discussing Havili's academic standing with boosters, alumni and others "not privileged or authorized to have such information," and that Havili was denied "due process of law"
because he was not entitled to an appeals process.
"Mr. Havili has been damaged through the loss of his ability to participate in intercollegiate athletics on the same basis as any other student," the lawsuit says. "He has been damaged emotionally, mentally, and through the loss of eligibility."
Since being barred from the Utes, the 25-year-old Havili has played two seasons at Texas Tech - the 6-foot-3, 258-pounder moved to defense after a year at El Camino College in California, and also played special teams for the Red Raiders - and plans to use his final year of college eligibility to play for former Utah coach Ron McBride at Weber State this fall.
Havili declined to comment Friday - he's seeking unspecified damages - and so did Hill.
But their shared saga three years ago became a public melodrama that divided fans and hastened McBride's firing - in essence, setting the stage for the arrival (and departure) of coach Urban Meyer and the blossoming of the Utes into a national football power.
Havili wanted to join the Utes for the 2002 season after serving seven months in jail for firebombing a house with five other men in 1998. The group used plastic milk jugs full of gasoline, in retaliation for an apparently gang-related drive-by shooting. The men also fired shotguns into the house after it was ablaze, though nobody was inside.
McBride wanted Havili on the team, too.
He was under pressure to save his job, and argued that Havili had grown repentant and reformed his life enough to deserve another chance, even though the player had begun serving an LDS Church mission in New York City before investigators became aware of his involvement in the crime and tracked him down.
Many others agreed, with dozens of players, boosters and community figures - including an assistant district attorney - writing to Hill on behalf of Havili.
University officials "haven't looked at the kid," attorney Ed Brass said at the time. "He's a good kid."
Brass could not be reached for comment Friday. But he raised the specter of a lawsuit three years ago, saying the Utes were keeping Havili off the team for public-relations reasons.
Still, Hill and Machen refused to change their minds.
That refusal soured an already strained relationship between Hill and McBride, and helped lead to McBride's firing after the 2002 season. The Utes staggered through a 5-6 campaign that year that included a six-game losing streak, and McBride insisted months later that the Utes would have won nine games had Havili been allowed to play.