A federal judge Tuesday heard oral arguments that could shut the door on former UNC-Chapel Hill athletes’ claims that they were cheated out of an education – or that could allow their lawsuits to shine more light on a major academic scandal.
U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs asked pointed questions of attorneys for the athletes and the university as they made legal arguments in two lawsuits involving former football players Michael McAdoo and Devon Ramsay and women’s basketball players Kenya McBee and Rashanda McCants.
Biggs questioned UNC’s claim that the case should be dismissed because the university has sovereign immunity as an entity of the state, and challenged the athletes’ attorneys to show that their clients were harmed by the scandal.
Biggs said the case was too complex to issue an immediate decision.
Ramsay and McCants have also named the NCAA a defendant, alleging that it failed to do its job in policing UNC and other universities to make sure their athletes received legitimate college educations.
Two months ago, a state court judge dismissed a third lawsuit involving two more former athletes. UNC’s attorneys cited that dismissal in court Tuesday.
All three lawsuits accused UNC of failing to educate athletes properly by steering them to fake classes that were offered by a former African studies department office manager who was not a professor. She provided high grades for classes that never met and typically required only a term paper.
“The university has admitted that the students did not get what they deserved,” said Geraldine Sumter, an attorney for McAdoo and McBee. “It failed the students, and the only way for the students to address that is in a court forum.”
UNC and NCAA attorneys say the athletes’ claims have no standing in the courts, and even if they did, they were filed long after a three-year statute of limitations had expired.
“I think discovery would be a waste of time and resources in this case,” said Lisa Gilford, an attorney representing UNC.
The NCAA contends it has no legal obligation to oversee how classes are taught at its member schools, and sought to be dropped from the lawsuit. Steve Brody, an attorney for the NCAA, said the association could not be expected to be held accountable for a scheme that many at the university failed to catch.
Michael Hausfeld, an attorney for Ramsay and McCants, presented numerous public statements and documents from NCAA officials that professed its role in ensuring athletes received college educations.
One statement Hausfeld read from NCAA President Mark Emmert: “The Association was founded on the notion of integrating athletics into the educational experience, and we have to make sure we deliver on that 100-year-old promise.”
But Biggs pressed him on the fact that Ramsay and McCants’ lawsuit showed no direct involvement between NCAA officials and his clients.
UNC and the NCAA also said the former athletes had reason to know something was amiss when they took the fake classes, but they didn’t raise objections at that time.
The fake classes ran for 18 years and involved more than 3,100 students – roughly half of them athletes – before they were shut down at the start of the fall 2011 semester. An investigation found the office manager began offering the classes after academic counselors for athletes complained about independent studies that required meetings and progress reports.
The scandal has damaged UNC’s reputation. Its accrediting agency has put it on probation, and the NCAA has accused the university of five major violations, including lack of institutional control. The NCAA case has yet to reach an infractions hearing.