8 former women’s basketball players sue Lenoir-Rhyne University for at least $26M after dismissal from team

Published: Jul. 8, 2021 at 8:21 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Eight former players for Lenoir-Rhyne University’s women’s basketball team are suing the university for at least $26 million, claiming they were kicked off the team because they spoke out against racism.

The lawsuit is also against women’s basketball coach Grahm Smith and University President Frederick Whitt.

The athletes allege that coach Smith dismissed them from the team, accusing him of retaliation for them speaking out against racism and for social justice during two events on campus.

Document: Click here to read the lawsuit.

One of the players is suing President Whitt, alleging that the president published defamatory statements about her to the campus community.

In early Sept. 2020, the lawsuit states that one of the players spearheaded a Symposium to discuss the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, as well as the nationwide protests against racism and for social justice in summer 2020.

The lawsuit says this symposium was only for the players on Lenoir-Rhyne’s women’s basketball team. The school’s assistant provost, athletic director and director of diversity and inclusion were involved in leading the Symposium. Coach Smith and assistant coaches were also there. The lawsuit says the players were required to hand over their cell phones so that all participants could feel free to voice their opinions.

The lawsuit continues, claiming that coach Smith told a white student that the Black players on the basketball team were “overly aggressive and overly hostile” based on their participation in the Symposium.

After this, the lawsuit goes on to say that two of the players put together another event for the entire student body called “The Talk”, held in a university auditorium and live streamed to students, faculty and the University community not able to attend in-person. The lawsuit says coach Smith watched this event via live-streaming.

After the Symposium and “The Talk” events, the lawsuit alleges that coach Smith set out to retaliate against the Black players and white players who supported them speaking out against racism and for social justice.

These are the forms of retaliation the lawsuit claims that Smith executed:

  • Making Black players feel they were not wanted and/or didn’t belong at Lenoir/Rhyne.
  • Kicking almost all of the Black players off the team
  • Kicking white players off the team who supported the Black players and also spoke out against racism.
  • Taking away scholarships of almost all these players
  • Telling most of these players they “did not fit into the culture” of the basketball program.

The lawsuit says that in April 2021, one of the players published an open letter to the university where she pointed out that four of the five Black players and the supportive white players were kicked off the team.

The lawsuit then states that after this, President Whitt and the university published a letter to the campus, saying “a former student-athlete posted a number of false claims on social media, including that she was dismissed from the women’s basketball team for speaking out against racism and advocating for social justice” and “her dismissal from the basketball team was a legitimate coaching decision, and suggestions to the contrary are simply false.”

The lawsuit claims these statements were in response to the player’s original open letter to the campus and the lawsuit claims these statements were “false and defamatory” and that the president’s statements constitute libel.

The complaint lists causes for this legal action, including breach of contract, negligent misrepresentation, tortious interference with contractual rights, tortious interference with prospective economic advantage and libel.

The lawsuit says the student handbook gave the players freedom of expression in both public and private utterances. The lawsuit says each player suffered actual damages, including loss of scholarships and room and board, and mental and emotional stress.

Both coach Smith and President Whitt are being accused of malicious and willful and wanton conduct in the lawsuit. The players are demanding a trial by jury.

On Friday July 2, Lenoir-Rhyne University published a message on their website, saying Parker Poe law firm conducted an independent investigation of the facts “regarding claims of racism in the women’s basketball program at Lenoir-Rhyne University.”

According to the message posted by the university, “Based on the interviews conducted and materials reviewed during the investigation, Parker Poe concluded there is no evidence that the current women’s basketball coaching staff promotes or facilitates a culture of racial insensitivity; Coach Grahm Smith’s communications and decisions relating to non-returning women’s basketball players were motivated by legitimate reasons unrelated to race or social justice issues; and Coach Grahm Smith’s decision to dismiss Laney Fox from the women’s basketball team was based on a loss of trust and what he perceived to be her lack of commitment and buy-in to the women’s basketball program.”

The message on the university’s website includes a statement that the school looks to promote a community that is “welcoming and inclusive.”

“We are encouraged by the recent organizational changes and initiatives President Whitt has announced that will promote and advance issues of diversity, equity and inclusion on campus. We look forward to building on this progress together. We will continue to work diligently to ensure Lenoir-Rhyne is a place that our students, faculty and staff feel welcome and accepted,” the message, written by Board of Trustees Chair Madeleine Dassow, read.

WBTV reached out to Lenoir-Rhyne University for a response to the lawsuit filed Thursday. This was the school’s immediate response:

“The university has not received a copy of the complaint and, thus, cannot comment on it. The university is not giving interviews at this time,” the statement read.

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