More legal trouble for UNC, NCAA

From last week. Rashanda McCants, a former UNC women’s basketball player (and the sister of former UNC men’s star Rashad McCants) and Devon Ramsey, a former UNC football player, have filed suit against UNC and the NCAA for denying them the right to a real education. Specifically, the suit – which has been filed as a class action open to any UNC athlete who was on scholarship between 1989 and 2011 and/or took one or more of the fraudulent classes offered through the (since renamed) department of African and African American Studies – says that the named plaintiffs were unaware of the fraud being perpetrated at their expense, since they did not know they were enrolled in classes in which the supervision and grading were done by an administrative assistant, not a faculty member.

As I said at the time that former football player Michael McAdoo filed his own breach-of-educational-contract suit against UNC, I don’t have any opinion about the merits of the plaintiffs’ specific claims about their knowledge of the nature and quality of the classes in which they were being enrolled. What I find interesting in both cases, and especially this one, is how it zeroes in on the NCAA’s key justification for not paying players: that the athletes they recruit to play collegiate sports are students first.

In his report on the suit, Jon Solomon wrote:

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.

As I’ve said before, I think it’s obvious to virtually everyone who does not, per Upton Sinclair, have a financial stake in being ignorant of the enterprise’s obvious purpose that the mission of big time college athletics is pecuniary, not educational. And given that, the NCAA’s arguments for not paying players, beyond the cost of a scholarship, is indefensible. What’s interesting, though is that, as the NCAA comes under increasing legal assault *and* as the swell of academic improprieties in college sports only grows, the Association may well be pushed to become much more aggressive in policing and punishing those improprieties. This is one reason I anticipate the NCAA will come down hard on UNC once it finishes its investigation of the academic/athletic fraud scandal here.

It’s likely to be a losing battle. The NCAA no longer has a compelling legal justification for maintaining the existing collegiate model, only a series of increasing empty pleas and platitudes about character and education. But it will go down in ironic fashion – trying harder than ever before to enforce academic standards at the historic moment when the courts no longer buy that it’s primarily an academic concern.

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