Ex-North Carolina athletes sue NCAA, UNC over academic scandal
New lawsuit by O'Bannon plaintiffs' law firm takes aim at the heart of NCAA's stated educational mission.
Two former University of North Carolina athletes filed a lawsuit Thursday against the NCAA and the university in relation to the academic scandal facing North Carolina athletics.
The lawsuit, which is attempting to become a class action in North Carolina state court, takes aim at the NCAA’s stated educational mission in exchange for participation in college sports.
Former North Carolina women’s basketball player Rashanda McCants -- the sister of former men’s basketball star Rashad McCants -- and former football player Devon Ramsay are the named plaintiffs in the suit. The case is being led, in part, by the same law firm pursuing the Ed O’Bannon case against the NCAA over the use of college athletes’ names, images and likenesses.
“This academic debacle, at one of the nation’s finest public universities, could not have come as a surprise to the NCAA,” the lawsuit states. “It had ample warning, including empirical evidence from numerous academic experts, that many college athletes were not receiving a meaningful education, including -- disproportionally -- African-American college athletes in revenue producing sports.”
The complaint accuses the NCAA of negligence because it “knew of dozens of instances of academic fraud in its member schools’ athletic programs over the last century, and it nevertheless refused to implement adequate monitoring systems to detect and prevent these occurrences at its member institutions.”
The lawsuit is seeking unspecified damages and an injunction requiring “the formation of an independent commission to review, audit, assess, and report on academic integrity in NCAA-member athletic programs and certify member-school curricula as providing comparable educations and educational opportunities to athletes and non-athletes alike.”
Lawyers for the case are seeking both a damages class and an injunctive relief class. The damages class is trying to cover anyone who attended North Carolina on an athletic scholarship between 1989 and 2011 and enrolled in any of the hundreds of African-American classes listed in the complaint. The injunctive class is defined as anyone who attended North Carolina on an athletic scholarship, past or present.
McCants was an All-American women’s basketball player during her career from 2005 to 2009. The complaint says she was enrolled in at least two academically unsound classes within African-American studies without knowing that her work was not supervised or graded by a faculty member.
Ramsay played football at North Carolina from 2007 to 2012 and started his final two seasons. The complaint says he was enrolled in at least one academically unsound class without knowing his work was unsupervised. Ramsay was suspended from North Carolina in 2010 after he was accused of getting too much academic help from a tutor, but he won an appeal and was reinstated to play in 2011 and later graduated.
This is the second lawsuit filed against North Carolina related to the academic scandal, which saw academic counselors in North Carolina's athletic department push athletes into a system of fraudulent, no-show classes to keep players eligible. In November, former football player Michael McAdoo sued the university in North Carolina federal court and is attempting to represent all Tar Heels scholarship football players between 1993 and 2011.
But the McCants and Ramsay case attempts to go deeper than suing North Carolina and was brought by attorneys Michael Hausfeld (the lead lawyer in the O'Bannon case) and Robert Orr (a retired North Carolina Supreme Court justice). The complaint tries to make the NCAA culpable by not only ignoring the North Carolina academic fraud case, but also due to the association’s history of other academic fraud cases and issues related to academic rigor.
NCAA, UNC relationship
The complaint alleges that North Carolina and the NCAA “enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship that neither wished to disturb despite warning signs of academic fraud. The NCAA relished the exponential increase in revenue, which funded the NCAA’s own operations and which was distributed to its member institutions. UNC likewise enjoyed the revenues that came with winning, as well as the increased popularity and attendant recruiting advantages.”
Around the time of Kenneth Wainstein's report into the academic scandal, the NCAA began investigating North Carolina again as new witnesses began to speak. The lawsuit alleges the NCAA conducted only a "cursory investigation" the first time it reviewed details and "insisted that any scandal was academic and not athletic -- despite the disproportionate enrollment of student-athletes" in the fraudulent African-American Studies classes.
In a December interview with CBSSports.com, NCAA president Mark Emmert disagreed that the association had delayed investigating North Carolina.
"They weren't really delays," Emmert said. "The staff went in originally looking at an issue unrelated to any potential academic misconduct and was focused entirely on that and finished that up, and then as all of this issue unfolded, then the investigative staff reengaged with the university. The university has been very forthcoming working with our people."
The Chronicle of Higher Education reported this week that the NCAA is currently investigating 20 universities regarding possible academic fraud, including 18 from Division I.
Wainstein's report showed that 47.4 percent of the students in the fake North Carolina classes were athletes, although athletes comprise just over 4 percent of the undergrad student body. Of those athlete enrollments, 50.9 percent were football players, 12.2 percent were men's basketball players and 6.5 percent were women's basketball players.
One question that will surely come up in the case: To what extent were players complicit in not getting a quality education? The complaint argues that the nature and scope of the "academically unsound courses" at North Carolina were not known to the plaintiffs and class members until the Wainstein report was produced in October 2014.
The lawsuit quotes former North Carolina Gov. Jim Martin's remarks from his 2012 investigative report that stated, "the fault should not be assigned to students who enrolled in the course section." Also cited is a quote from North Carolina's chancellor that the university failed in academic oversight for years and that North Carolina was "absolutely accountable."
Suit goes after broader NCAA issues
In many ways, this lawsuit tries to attack the heart of college athletics. Players are not allowed to be paid, but in exchange for playing in the multi-billion-dollard industry, they receive a scholarship and a chance for a college education. The overriding question in the complaint: Are the players receiving a quality education in return for playing?
The suit argues that the NCAA knows athletic time demands on players are too much and exceed the weekly 20-hour rule. Past comments from multiple college sports leaderes are cited, as are proposal documents from the Power Five conferences to possibly create athletic dead periods for athletes.
"Despite the NCAA's awareness of the excessive time pressures placed on scholarship athletes, in violation of the NCAA’s rules, and the risk that its members’ time demands on their athletes increased the risk of academic fraud, the NCAA failed to enforce the 20-hour rule during the Class Period or take adequate steps to detect and prevent the academic fraud the NCAA had incentivized," the suit states.
The committee concluded that the NCAA’s rules created an environment that could not adequately combat academic fraud because all athletic programs “exploit the maximum competitive options the (NCAA) system allows,” the complaint states, quoting the North Carolina committee. “No university will reform its programs until the system itself is reformed and the reforms are made obligatory for all.”
The North Carolina committee added: “[I]ntercollegiate sports programs are out of proportion to their functional place in the academic world, that some student-athletes are not students and do not genuinely represent the student bodies of which they are nominally members, that the effort to enroll them and keep them eligible results frequently in a corruption of the academic process, and that the ideal of amateur collegiate sportsmanship engraved in the NCAA constitution has been overwhelmed by an abundance of money and an intensity of competition and publicity that drive intercollegiate sports toward professionalism.”
Hausfeld, one of the attorneys in the case, said in an interview that lawyers determined during the O'Bannon case months ago to sue the NCAA over the education of athletes.
"In the course of the O'Bannon case, the NCAA and schools insisted they provided education to athletes and we kept seeing reports completely the opposite," Hausfeld said. "Who's responsible for athletes being educated? The academics point to coaches, the coaches point to athletic directors, the athletic directors point to the NCAA, and the NCAA points right back to the academics. It's a perfect circle. It took 100 years to get to this point. The NCAA understood the problem and never took interest in fixing it."
The McAdoo case was filed in North Carolina federal court. Hausfeld said he sued in state court because "if you look at the legal ability to sue in North Carolina, you can't do it in federal court. There's statutory immunity."
North Carolina spokesman Rick White said the university has not seen the lawsuit and cannot comment at this time. NCAA chief legal counsel Donald Remy said in a statement the NCAA has no comment because it has not seen the lawsuit.
If you wish to read the full text of the Hausfeld vs. UNC and NCAA complaint, you can download it by clicking here.
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