Judge tosses lawsuit by former UNC athletes over bogus classes

A Mecklenburg County judge on Friday dismissed claims by two former UNC-Chapel Hill athletes – including one from Charlotte – that school officials undermined their educations by coercing them to take a “shadow curriculum” based on bogus classes.

Former Charlotte Christian and UNC basketball player Leah Metcalf and James “Cooter” Arnold of Mocksville, a four-year member of the Tar Heels football team, claim in their lawsuit that they both had high academic aspirations when they agreed to accept athletic scholarships at the school.

Instead, they claim, they were blocked from receiving the elite education they were promised because their coaches and academic counselors funneled them into a series of “sham” courses offered by the Department of African and African American Studies.

Those classes, which often did not have a teacher nor require attendance, are at the center of a long-running scandal that has damaged the school’s international reputation for classroom and athletic excellence. For almost 20 years, the school used the curriculum to keep athletes eligible in football, basketball and other sports.

In legal briefs and during oral arguments before Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin, university attorneys said the case lacks merit. UNC attorney Lisa Guilford of Los Angeles also told Ervin that under state law, the university could not be sued. Even if it could, the deadline for filing a complaint closed years ago.

At the close of the hour-long hearing, Ervin agreed.

The athletes’ attorneys, Geraldine Sumter of Charlotte and Cyrus Mehri of Washington, D.C., said they will take the case to the N.C. Court of Appeals.

Rick White, the university’s vice chancellor for communications and public affairs, said Ervin followed the law in reaching his decision. Meanwhile, he said, UNC has taken responsibility for the academic improprieties and has made necessary changes.

Asked if Metcalf and Arnold had indeed been boxed out of receiving a true UNC education, White said, “The full university experience depends on each student” and that a degree from the school is more valuable than ever.

“We’ve had record applications – from 150 countries, all 50 states and all 100 North Carolina counties. That doesn’t sound like a university that has a problem with a devalued degree.”

In their filing, university attorneys say the lawsuit doesn’t explain how Metcalf was damaged by her enrollment in the disputed classes or how they may have contributed to her decision not to pursue a medical career.

Mehri, though, said his clients – the third group of athletes to sue the school over the disputed classes – signed scholarships with the school on the promise of having full access to that very education. Metcalf wanted to be a doctor. Instead she majored in math and African-American studies and is playing professional basketball in Poland.

Arnold sat behind his attorneys in the courtroom. When he arrived at Chapel Hill as a freshman, the lawsuit says, he was handed a class schedule that someone else had filled out. He graduated in 2009 with a major in African and African-American Studies, and “was unable to get a job requiring a college degree.”

After the hearing, Mehri gestured toward Guilford. “I’d like her to tell the UNC students, the faculty and the board of governors what she just told this court – that these kids were not harmed.”

While he did not rule on the merits of the case, Ervin, a graduate of Davidson College and Harvard Law, probed some of the plaintiff’s allegations. Since the athletes were enrolled in legitimate classes, he said, shouldn’t they have known the others were lacking? “You can’t be an active participant then turn around and say, ‘I was defrauded,’ ” he told Mehri.

The attorney responded that the students trusted and deferred to the authority of their coaches and counselors, who in turn were participating in an unprecedented conspiracy of academic fraud.

The judge pushed back, saying it would be a better world if he could believe that “these things were not taking place at other universities.”

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS