Suit: Activism got players tossed from women’s college team

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) — Eight women’s college basketball players and a manager were kicked off the team at a private North Carolina university because they organized symposiums to discuss racism and social justice, a lawsuit says.

The lawsuit, which was filed earlier this month, also says Black players were told by their coach that they weren’t wanted at the school. All eight players and the manager are plaintiffs in the case.

The lawsuit in Mecklenburg County Superior Court names Lenoir-Rhyne University, women’s basketball coach Grahm Smith and university president Frederick Whitt as defendants. The players are seeking $26 million in damages, saying in the suit that their chances of professional basketball careers were damaged by the dismissals.

The lawsuit also says the school went back on a portion of the student handbook which allows students freedom of expression in public and private settings. Lenoir-Rhyne took away scholarships from the player because they spoke out, according to the lawsuit.

A spokesperson for the liberal arts university in Hickory said Thursday that the school hasn’t seen the lawsuit and couldn’t comment on it.

But spokesperson Cory Butzin said in an email that the school conducted an independent investigation of the claims made by the players against the school. A statement from the school says the investigation concluded there was no evidence that the women’s basketball coaching staff “promotes or facilitates a culture of racial insensitivity.”

The investigation also said Smith’s communications and decisions about non-returning women’s basketball players were motivated by legitimate reasons unrelated to race or social justice issues.

Player Laney Fox, who is white, and Nakia Hooks, one of the Black players thrown off the team, could not be reached for comment Thursday. Attorney Harold Kennedy, who represents the plaintiffs, declined further comment on the case.

According to the independent investigation, the university’s statement said, Smith’s decision to dismiss Fox from the women’s basketball team was based on a loss of trust and what he considered a lack of commitment to the program.

Lenoir-Rhyne is a private university in Hickory with an enrollment of 2,742 as of the 2019-2020 school year. Located some 60 miles (95 kilometers) northwest of Charlotte, it competes in the South Athletic Conference, a collection of 13 schools in the NCAA Division II.

In September 2020, Fox organized a symposium for the team to discuss racism and social justice which also was attended by the school’s athletic director, provost and director of diversity and inclusion, according to the lawsuit. It said the symposium was a response to the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

Smith, who also attended the meeting, told a white player after the meeting that the Black players on the team were “overly aggressive and hostile” based on their participation in the symposium, according to the document.

Fox and team manager Fatou Sell organized a second symposium for the entire Lenoir-Rhyne University campus on dealing with racism and social justice issues. It was after the second symposium and following the end of the 2020-2021 season that Smith kicked Fox, Sell and seven other players off the team.

Kennedy said seven of the players were dismissed during meetings on March 15-17, 2021, and he said Fox was dismissed on March 25 of that year; Fox had left school in November 2020 and returned to her home in Florida because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Smith set out to retaliate against the Black players and the White players who supported the Black players and who spoke out against racism and for social justice,” the document said. The retaliation involved “making Black players feel that they were not wanted at Lenoir-Rhyne University.”

The lawsuit also says most of the players kicked off the team were told that they “did not fit the culture” of the women’s basketball program.

In addition, Fox says in the lawsuit that when she wrote an open letter to the school in April 2021 pointing out that four of the five Black players on the Lenoir-Rhyne team had been kicked off the squad, the university president Whitt responded with a letter which said “a former student athlete posted a number of false claims on social media” about the dismissals.

“Her dismissal from the basketball team was a legitimate coaching decision, and suggestions to the contrary are simply false,” Whitt wrote.

Fox is seeking $5 million in actual damages and in excess of $25,000 in punitive damages against Whitt and the university.

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