Eight former Lenoir-Rhyne University basketball players and a team manager filed a lawsuit against the university on Thursday, alleging they were kicked off the women’s basketball team after speaking out against racism.
The eight former players and manager are seeking $27 million in damages against the university, women’s basketball coach Grahm Smith and University President Fred Whitt, according to the initial complaint, filed in Mecklenburg County Superior Court.
Problems in the team surfaced in April, when Laney Fox, a former women’s basketball player for Lenoir-Rhyne, publicly accused the university of dismissing her from the team after speaking out against racism after the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Kentucky resident Breonna Taylor last year.
After her complaints, Lenoir-Rhyne hired an outside firm to investigate. Last week, the university announced investigators found no evidence of racist culture.
Fox is joined by other former team members Nakia Hooks, Ashley Woodroffe, Michaela Dixon, Sydney Wilson, Tamerah Brown, Kennedy Weigt, Korbin Tipton and Fatou Sall as plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Lenoir-Rhyne. They are represented by Harold Kennedy, an attorney in Winston-Salem, who issued a news release on the lawsuit on Thursday.
Lenoir-Rhyne had not received a copy of the lawsuit Thursday afternoon and would not comment on it, according to Marketing Communications Specialist Cory Butzin.
The complaint begins by describing the deaths of Floyd and Taylor. Then recounting quotes by nationally-recognized sports figures speaking out against those deaths and racial injustice in the past year. Fox joined them, and held a symposium to discuss Floyd’s and Taylor’s deaths and protest against racism at Lenoir-Rhyne, the lawsuit says. The symposium, held in fall of 2020, was for players on Lenoir-Rhyne’s women’s basketball team. Coaches and administration were involved, and students were able to speak freely, the lawsuit says.
“None of the women’s basketball players would have thought in their wildest dreams that they could be subjected to retaliation, including being kicked off the women’s basketball team for speaking out at the symposium against racism and injustice,” the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit alleges that after the symposium and other anti-racism events, the team’s coach, Smith, retaliated against Black players and white players who supported them. The lawsuit alleges he made Black team members feel unwanted at Lenoir-Rhyne and kicked those team members off the team, taking away scholarships.
Based on those actions, the lawsuit alleges a breach of contract. The players were verbally recruited to play for four years and told that they would have scholarships or be members of the basketball team for four years, the lawsuit says. The players and manager also signed the student handbook that gave the right to have freedom of expression in public and private utterances, the complaint says.
The lawsuit also alleges negligent misrepresentation by the school.
The lawsuit seeks punitive damages against Whitt and Smith for deliberate misconduct, alleging Smith, knowing the verbal and written contracts the team members had, terminated those contracts with personal and improper motives, specifically for speaking out against racism. The university was complicit in that, the lawsuit claims.
Three players — Fox, Hooks and Wilson — had intent to play professional basketball. Being kicked off the Lenoir-Rhyne team has affected their chances of playing professionally, the complaint alleges.
The lawsuit also claims Whitt’s public letter denouncing Fox’s initial complaints about the situation was libelous and defamatory. Whitt’s letter, published by Lenoir-Rhyne, said Fox’s claims of racism were false. For that, Fox is seeking $5 million, the complaint said.
The nine team members also filed questions for Lenoir-Rhyne to answer within 45 days, including any previous complaints against the university, Smith or Whitt, names of former coaches who were fired, the days Smith decided each player should be kicked off the team, all communications documents about the plaintiffs, all written basketball team policies, all communication about the symposium and protests held and more.
The former team members also requested documents relating to their dismissal from the team.