In-Depth Look: ex-UNC Athletes Sue for the Education They Were Denied

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On Thursday, January 22, two more former student-athletes filed a lawsuit against both the University of North Carolina and the NCAA, claiming the institutions failed to safeguard and provide scholarship student-athletes with a meaningful education, directly attacking the ‘amateurism’ model the NCAA uses to defend its rules against student-athlete compensation.

The lawsuit filed is the second of its type stemming from the scandal exposed by the release of the Wainstein Report last October.  The report, investigated and written by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein, largely confirmed numerous accusations of academic fraud running rampant at the University of North Carolina.  The report found that Debby Crowder, an administrator in the Afro-American studies department, created and ran false “paper classes” that offered no academic substance to help struggling student-athletes maintain eligibility.  The classes did not meet, and the only graded material was a final paper that usually lacked any academic merit.  Ms. Crowder, not a faculty member, ran the classes and handed out the false grades.  After her retirement in 2009, Julius Nyang’oro, then chairman of the department, took over the program.  He retired in 2012 in compliance with the investigation.  The report found that 3,100 students participated in these “paper classes” between 1993 and 2011.  Of the students enrolled in these classes, 50% were football players, 12% were men’s basketball players, and 6% were women’s basketball players.   To make matters worse, student-athletes were often pushed by their academic advisers into the “paper classes” to maintain their eligibility.  Additionally, there is some evidence to show the athletic department and some coaches were aware.

A few weeks after the Wainstein report was released, a former UNC football player, Michael McAdoo filed a lawsuit against the school for failing to provide a quality education.   McAdoo claims he was offered a good education in return for his commitment to the school. Instead, McAdoo was guided into the African-American Studies curriculum that was ultimately exposed as phony.  His lawsuit names other similarly situated football players at UNC.  The latest litigation expands this scope by increasing the plaintiff class to anyone who attended the school on an academic scholarship.  Last week’s filing was brought by former UNC student-athletes, Rashanda McCants and Devon Ramsay.

Rashanda McCants played basketball at UNC from 2005-2009 and won the ACC player of the year award as a senior.  She recently withstood substantial criticism over social media last year when her brother, a member of the 2005 UNC basketball team that won the NCAA championship, revealed to ESPN’s Outside the Lines his history with the academic fraud at UNC.   Rashad McCants told ESPN that he could’ve been academically ineligible to play during his teams championship run in 2005 if it weren’t for the academic assistance he received. His sister Rashanda, the named plaintiff, received criticism and threats over social media and attempted to distance herself from her brother’s actions.  Rashanda has also been vocal on social media, garnering support for her legal cause.  Though he was openly critical of UNC, Rashad is not a named plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The other named plaintiff, Devon Ramsay, also has a storied history with the University of North Carolina.  Ramsay was a member of the football team at UNC from 2007-2011.  During his 2010 junior season, Devon, along with McAdoo, was ruled ineligible by the NCAA for alleged academic misconduct.   Ramsay received no help from UNC and sought the aid of attorney Robert Orr in successfully appealing his suspension.  Unhappy with his treatment, Ramsay testified last July in front of a US Senate committee hearing on college athletes and academics fraud.   Ramsay expressed his dissatisfaction with the pressures from the athletic department and his inability to participate in any internships that would help prepare him for professional life without football.  Ramsay claimed the athletic work load was too high for any student-athletes to participate in internships.  Additionally, he claimed  UNC athletics had a culture that demonizes academic progress and individual achievement.  He stated that “the NCAA as an institution no longer protects the student-athlete.  They are more concerned with signage and profit margins.”

Trying to prove that statement in a court of law, McCants and Ramsay are represented by an attorney the NCAA knows all too well, Michael Hausfeld.  Hausfeld, a K street lawyer from Washington D.C., has been heavily active in the world of sports law since his departure from his last firm in 2008.  Hausfeld recently represented the retired NFL players in their concussion-litigation settlement.  The NCAA knows Hausfeld from his recent court victory where he led the charge in the O’Bannon case that could, if its decision is not overturned on appeal, have a drastic change in collegiate athletics by finally allowing compensation to student-athletes.

Though he already has one win under his belt, Michael Hausfeld will readily admit he knows very little about sports.  He does, however, know about social injustice and how to fix it.  Hausfeld has represented many aggrieved parties that had difficulty obtaining meaningful representation over his long career as a plaintiff’s attorney.  From native Alaskans harmed by an Exxon Valdez oil spill to Jewish families whose assets were wrongly retained by Swiss banks after World War II, Hausfeld has often represented ‘little guy’ aggrieved by an oppressive system.  The O’Bannon plaintiffs and the plaintiffs here, he would argue, are no different.  The lawsuit filed seeks to prove the student-athletes he represents against the NCAA and UNC are exploited by “the entire enterprise of big-time contemporary college athletics, in which academics is truly the stepchild to athletics, and the meaningful education that the NCAA promises and commits to is nothing more than an illusion.”

This most recent legal battle Hausfeld is waging against the NCAA can have far-reaching implications, changing the foundation of collegiate athletics, by directly attacking the ‘amateurism’ model that the NCAA relies on in defending its student-athlete compensation restrictions.  If Hausfeld and the plaintiffs are successful, it would greatly diminish the NCAA’s argument in appealing the O’Bannon decision as well as any future attempt by NCAA student-athletes to receive compensation for their performance.

The plaintiffs’ complaint details a history of student-athletes receiving an inadequate education in order to remain eligible for athletic participation and continue generating revenue for their respective schools, conferences, and the NCAA.  The plaintiffs claim the NCAA and UNC failed in its fiduciary duty to the student-athletes and breached the implied contract between the student-athletes and the university formed by their scholarships.  The student-athlete plaintiffs allege that they performed athletically in return for an adequate education.  While the plaintiffs upheld their end of the bargain, the school and NCAA did not hold up theirs.

The lawsuit also claims the NCAA and UNC enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship that neither wished to disturb once they recognizing various instances of potential academic fraud.  In addition to the “paper classes” at UNC, the plaintiffs refer to the NCAA’s failure to enforce its 20 hour restriction on athletics, their lowering of eligibility standards and academic progress requirements, and other alleged academic fraud at Syracuse, Michigan State, Auburn, and Florida State, among others.  The plaintiffs claim the NCAA and its member schools saw such a massive economic increase that they turned a blind eye to, or even helped push, the falling academic standards.  The plaintiff class doesn’t seek only monetary damages for the student-athletes deprived of a meaningful education while at UNC.  The lawsuit also seeks to fix the system.  A proposed remedy in the complaint is the creation of an independent commission to audit schools academic programs, ensuring an end to student-athlete victimization through athletic fraud.

The claims brought will see many challenges in court as they are novel claims that have not been adjudicated before.  Two significant questions that will need to be answered, upon which the student-athletes’ case hinge, are whether the student-athletes’ scholarships constitute a contract and to what extent these student-athletes are responsible for their not receiving a quality education.  Much like the O’Bannon trial last year, Hausfeld’s latest attack on the NCAA model will surely be a highly publicized and highly criticized news story within college athletics for years to come.


Lawsuit claims UNC and NCAA broke promises in ‘spectacular fashion’

Rashanda McCants, Devon Ramsay file suit against UNC, NCAA

Ex-North Carolina athletes sue NCAA, UNC over academic scandal

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UNC Is Firing The Sports Ethics Professor Involved In The Fake Class Scandal

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