Ex-UNC athlete claims fake classes kept him eligible to play sports

(CNN) -- A former University of North Carolina football player has become the first to sue the university over an 18-year academic scandal that kept athletes eligible to play sports by taking classes that never met.

Mike McAdoo was a football player who lost his eligibility in 2011 when he was accused of getting too much help with a paper, and was one of the first athletes revealed to have taken part in "paper classes," for which the only requirement was completing a single paper.

Now he's suing the university in federal court, saying UNC broke its promise to give him an education in return for playing sports. His lawsuit is a class-action suit that the other 3,100 students who enrolled in the fake classes -- nearly half of whom are athletes -- could easily join.

"From selection of a major to selection of courses, the UNC football program controlled football student-athletes' academic track, with the sole purpose of ensuring that football student-athletes were eligible to participate in athletics, rather than actually educating them," says his lawsuit, filed Thursday by the law firms of Ferguson, Chambers & Sumter in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Mehri and Skalet in Washington, D.C.

"UNC has reaped substantial profits from football student-athletes' performance for the school, but it has not provided them a legitimate education in return. As such, UNC has breached its contract with Plaintiff and Class members, in violation of North Carolina common law," wrote his attorney, Jeremi Duru, who is also a professor of law at the Washington College of Law.

McAdoo's story

McAdoo, who spoke to CNN earlier this year, says he was recruited by many schools as a high school senior but chose UNC because he was promised a good education.

"When the coaches and academic staff came to my house all the way in Tennessee, you know they, they wasn't even talking football, they was talking academics," he told CNN earlier this year. "So they were saying, 'You know what, we can't promise your son that he's going to go to the NFL, but one thing that we can promise him is that he will get a college degree.'"

That didn't happen. McAdoo lost his eligibility and never graduated, caught up in the paper class scandal that was known to and used by about two dozen administrators, according to a scathing independent report released last month.

McAdoo was a pretty good student, but his grades and test scores fell much below the average student admitted to UNC, a top national public school with a reputation for rigorous academics and selective admission.

McAdoo's high school GPA was 2.9. Most admitted UNC students have high school GPAs between 3.6 and 4.3, according to the school's website.

The report last month by former federal prosecutor Ken Wainstein followed an eight-month investigation and confirmed what whistleblowers had been saying: Many student athletes were admitted to play sports when they were underprepared for college classes at UNC.

McAdoo told CNN earlier this year that he felt he was scapegoated in 2011, when he was kicked off the team for cheating.

Since 2011, when the fraud first came to light, the university has refused to acknowledge that members of the academic support staff knew about the paper classes and funneled athletes into them in the way that McAdoo described. He insisted they did know, and his story matched that of whistleblower Mary Willingham, who was also disregarded by the university administration for years and is also suing the school.

McAdoo told CNN he had expressed interest in studying criminal justice, but was told on his first day of scheduling that he had to pick from three majors that fit his football schedule -- Exercise and Sport Science, Communications, and African-American Studies, where the paper class scandal existed. McAdoo said his pre-determined schedule included some of the paper classes.

The report done by Wainstein, a partner with Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, found that many of the things McAdoo told CNN were true.

There were, the report said, nearly 30 staffers and administrators who knew about the paper classes, including McAdoo's academic advisor, Beth Bridger. Then-head football coach Butch Davis also acknowledged knowing about the scheme.

"I lost an education. I lost trust in the school -- someone I thought had my best interest. I definitely lost out on two seasons of football which would have put me in a better situation than I am now," McAdoo told CNN shortly after Wainstein's report was made public.

In the suit, Duru asks that a judge appoint someone to make sure that student athletes are no longer forced into certain majors as a condition of playing sports.

"We're not trying to vilify UNC, we're trying to restore one of its greatest traditions," Duru said.

It also seeks some kind of relief for the athletes like McAdoo who did not get the education they were promised.

"Now the key is trying to make it right for those student athletes who were done wrong," Duru said.

What this could mean

McAdoo's lawsuit could potentially uncover even more than the damning Wainstein investigation, which was by far the most thorough and provided a slew of information that had previously been discounted by UNC.

The difference is in the power of subpoena.

McAdoo's lawyers will be able to depose people who declined to talk to Wainstein -- potentially key participants whom Wainstein called out for refusing to cooperate, like the former director of football Cynthia Reynolds and the former interim head football coach Everett Withers.

Withers is now a coach at James Madison University and Reynolds is in academics at Cornell.

The former associate dean and director of the men's basketball team, Carolyn Cannon, and another counselor for football, Octavus Barnes, also refused to cooperate, according to the Wainstein report.

Willingham, who is suing UNC in a whistleblower-related lawsuit, said she also hopes to depose people who were not interviewed by Wainstein's team, such as members of the board of trustees.

"There's still a lot of denial, and Wainstein did not conduct his investigation with anyone under oath, nor did he have subpoena power," Willingham said.