A federal judge on Friday dismissed the NCAA as a defendant in a lawsuit brought by former North Carolina athletes who claimed their educations were hurt due to the university's academic scandal.
U.S. District Judge Loretta C. Biggs said in her order that lawyers for the former UNC athletes failed to state specific claims of how the NCAA had a legal duty to protect the players from fraudulent classes. Biggs did not rule on whether North Carolina will remain a defendant in the case.
The class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of former UNC women's basketball player Rashanda McCants and former football player Devon Ramsay. The lawyers, led by Ed O'Bannon attorney Michael Hausfeld and retired North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Robert Orr, attempted to take the case deeper than suing UNC.
They argued the NCAA assumed a legal duty to ensure the academic soundness of classes and in their complaint often cited the NCAA's history and past statements. The lawsuit was filed in January 2015, three months after former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein's investigation determined that UNC's athletic department helped steer athletes into bogus African-American Studies classes.
However, Biggs ruled that the sweeping arguments against the NCAA didn't matter without specific claims regarding UNC.
"The issue is not whether the NCAA is or is not merely an oversight agency," Biggs wrote. Instead, "the critical question here is whether the Plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged that the NCAA engaged in a course of conduct that would amount to a voluntary undertaking under North Carolina law. Plaintiffs have failed to do so."
The decision to remove the NCAA as a defendant comes as North Carolina is fighting charges against the association over alleged NCAA violations, including lack of institutional control. UNC has argued that the NCAA has no jurisdiction to determine the rigor of the classes. In some ways, that's the very argument the NCAA used to dismiss itself as a defendant in the McCants lawsuit.
Biggs said the plaintiffs' lawyers failed to provide North Carolina court decisions that would support their claims. She criticized large portions of the complaint that "contain broad, sweeping assertions that are neither specific to the NCAA nor specific to the plaintiffs in this case."
McCants and Ramsey's lawyers alleged that North Carolina and the NCAA "enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship that neither wished to disturb despite warning signs of academic fraud." Because of that relationship, the plaintiffs said, the NCAA and UNC enjoyed increased revenue.
Biggs said that just because the NCAA has eligibility requirements, that doesn't assume it has a financial duty to safeguard the academic soundness of classes at schools, including North Carolina. While the plaintiffs said the NCAA owed athletes a legal duty to monitor the academic quality of classes, "nowhere in the Complaints have Plaintiffs alleged that the NCAA actually engaged in these specific tasks," Biggs wrote.
There is a similar lawsuit before Biggs filed by two other former UNC athletes that names only North Carolina as a defendant, not the NCAA. That case has a pending legal question about whether UNC is "an arm or alter ego of the state." Until that question is answered, Biggs said she is not ruling on UNC's motion to be dismissed from the McCants case.
NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said the association has no comment on the dismissal from the McCants case.
Hausfeld, a lawyer for the McCants' plaintiffs, said he will appeal the ruling to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Orr, another lawyer for the plaintiffs, said all of the team's lawyers will be discussing their next step.