Appeals court focuses on McAdoo's 'right' to play football

dkane@newsobserver.comSeptember 14, 2012 

— A lawyer for former UNC-Chapel Hill football player Michael McAdoo sought to convince three N.C. Court of Appeals judges Thursday that McAdoo deserves the chance to make his case in a trial court that he was financially harmed by an improper process that forced him off the team two years ago.

McAdoo lost his remaining two years of eligibility after the NCAA found he had received improper help from a tutor in three classes. McAdoo’s attorney, Noah Huffstetler, told the court that the NCAA improperly overruled the university’s honor court, which found McAdoo had gotten the improper help in only one class and could return to the team for his senior season.

But the NCAA ruling prevailed, forcing McAdoo to turn pro a year early with the Baltimore Ravens, at the league minimum salary, Huffstetler said. Published reports indicate that minimum for a second-year player is $465,000.

“These student athletes work hard,” Huffstetler said. “They create a lot of wealth for the NCAA and the university, and they should have rights.”

But attorneys for the NCAA and the university told the judges McAdoo had no contractual or constitutional right to play football. They said he blew that opportunity when he admitted to receiving improper help from the tutor for one of the classes, accepting the honor court’s penalty in that case while the allegations regarding the other two were dismissed.

“It’s undisputed that Mr. McAdoo knew what he was doing,” said Paul Sun, an attorney for the NCAA. “He was turning in a tutor’s work as his own.”

They also said McAdoo no longer had any legal standing once he turned pro.

Appellate judges Sam Ervin, Robert N. Hunter and Douglas McCullough listened to the arguments in a legal battle that began more than a year ago in a Durham County courtroom. There, state Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson ruled in favor of the NCAA and UNC-CH, dismissing the case before it could go to trial.

No-show classes

McAdoo was among seven athletes dismissed from the football team in 2010 after an NCAA investigation that started out looking into improper agent benefits also found that tutor Jennifer Wiley was providing improper academic help. She helped him on a paper that later was found to include significant plagiarism.

But the NCAA investigation, along with an internal probe by the university, missed a bigger scandal tied to McAdoo’s classes: Records show at least two of them – and possibly a third – never met.

The two classes and possibly the third are among 54 no-show classes over a four-year period that offered little or no instruction. Athletes took up nearly two-thirds of the enrollments.

All of the classes were offered by the Department of African and Afro-American Studies. A second UNC-CH internal investigation laid the blame for them on Julius Nyang’oro, the longtime chairman forced to retire in July, and Deborah Crowder, the department manager who retired in 2009.

Deciding damages

The university was prompted to find the no-show classes after The News & Observer obtained a transcript of Marvin Austin, another football player who had been kicked off the team.

The transcript showed Austin had taken an upper-level class in the department during summer 2007, and received a B-plus before he had taken remedial writing his first full semester as a freshman. That class also never met.

None of that was known when McAdoo filed his lawsuit, but since then, Huffstetler has cited the academic fraud as evidence that his client was manipulated by the academic support program for athletes, and did not know that what he was doing was wrong. The support program has come under fire in the scandal as some evidence has emerged to indicate counselors were steering athletes to the no-show classes.

The judges challenged the arguments that lawyers representing all three parties made. They questioned whether playing football was a right, as Huffstetler argued. They also questioned whether the process that led to McAdoo’s removal from the team was fair when the university and the NCAA made no effort to provide him legal counsel.

If McAdoo gets a trial, awarding damages could be difficult. It’s hard to know how marketable McAdoo would have been to NFL teams had he played another season.

“If your client was entitled to nominal damages, shouldn’t we just kill this thing now?” Hunter asked Huffstetler toward the end of the hearing.

Huffstetler said no.

“Our client is interested in not only his rights, but the rights for all future students,” he said.

Kane: 919-829-4861

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