Breaking my silence on UNC’s woes
Four years ago I set foot on UNC’s campus as a freshman, just as an ongoing scandal was unfolding involving the relationship between athletics and academics. The NCAA had begun investigating the football program for receiving impermissible benefits after a series of suspicious tweets from defensive tackle Marvin Austin about taking trips and going on a shopping spree. The cancer spread the next summer when Austin’s transcript showed that he took a 400-level course in the Department of African and Afro American Studies (AFAM), in which he received a higher grade than his other courses. Then we found out tutors were involved when a term paper for an AFAM course written by linebacker Michael McAdoo was found to be heavily plagiarized. Since then, numerous reports have come out including one by former Gov. Jim Martin in December 2012, which found that no-show courses in the department went back as far as 1997. In the process we have seen the departure of a coach, an athletic director, a chancellor, and most recently a learning specialist who once worked with players and provided journalists, including this one, with clues along the way as to just what went on in those classes, or didn’t go on.
Last year I covered the scandal for my school paper, The Daily Tar Heel, and had a chance to interact with people working on reforming the system. This included the Faculty Athletics Committee and a new student-athlete working group headed by the provost. These committees look at issues like admissions and tutoring and discuss ways to eliminate issues that arose in the past. They are made up of intelligent, hard-working people who want to do the right thing. Unfortunately, whenever they are asked questions about things like no-show courses, they hide behind the “we’ve taken measures to ensure this doesn’t happen again,” curtain. The latest investigation from Kenneth Wainstein appears to be the most thorough, with more than 80 interviews having been conducted including former AFAM chairman Julius Nyang’Oro. Yet I remain skeptical since the University is paying him $990 per hour.
I also interviewed Mary Willingham a number of times in my final semester. I haven’t seen her data, and I don’t know if 60 percent of UNC’s football and men’s basketball players between 2004 and 2012 couldn’t read above an eighth grade level. But I feel she is acting in good faith. Anyone who speaks out against authority when they see something wrong has guts. She put her job and her reputation on the line, not to mention the death threats she received after she was featured on CNN January 7. Whistleblowers I talked to at other universities faced similar backlash, including one at the University of Tennessee who said her phone line was tapped and her office was broken into after she revealed that athletic tutors were completing players’ writing assignments. I know a lot of people think Willingham only wants publicity and money, but let’s remember that she had direct contact with these athletes for seven years. The only other people in the athletic department who spent that much time with players were the coaches, and do you really think they’re going to talk?
Then there’s Rashad McCants. The jury’s still out on this one. I give him credit for admitting he took AFAM courses to keep himself eligible, but you have to wonder why he waited nearly a decade after winning a national championship to do it. McCants also has a history of shooting off at the mouth, as he did in 2004 when he said “You’re not allowed to say certain things, but once you get out of jail, you’re free. (I’m) in my sentence and I’m doing my time.”
I’ll admit that having just left Chapel Hill, I’m heavily biased. I want to call out the University for pushing this under the rug for so long. I want to call them out for using FERPA as an excuse for not giving the public more access to academic information which might help us understand exactly how the problems with AFAM started and if it occurred with any other departments. I want to call out the current chancellor for not standing up and expressing outrage at a problem she didn’t create, but inherited responsibility for fixing. And let’s not forget about the Ram’s Club, which is the one story that hasn’t been reported yet. It’s no secret that big money sports can be a corrupt operation. Just like in politics, following the money can help lead to the source of the corruption.
Perhaps it isn’t journalistically responsible to point so many fingers, but even journalists know that some things are just plain old wrong. The University has a good deal to answer for as a second NCA A investigation begins. No one person is to blame. There are a host of people we already know were involved either directly or indirectly. Among others, that list includes Nyang’Oro, Jennifer Willey Thompson, Deborah Crowder, Butch Davis and Dick Baddour. None of them are at UNC anyone.
There are two people who are still there who may not be directly involved, but would do well to increase their visibility””Roy Williams and Carol Folt.
Roy’s denial of McCants’s claims doesn’t come as a shock. Most big-money sports figures avoid taking responsibility, or avoid the press. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect much from him. But for folks like me, the image of the two of them smiling together with the rest of the team in 2005 as they held up the national championship trophy is burned into our memories. If Roy wants to keep any ounce of credibility he still has left in the tank, he is going to need to confront his relationship with McCants a little more squarely than he has.
Folt has nothing to do with the origin of this mess, but she is UNC’s main voice. Fairly or unfairly, the public will judge her time in office based on what steps she takes to help restore the University’s image. Her honeymoon is over. She needs to be more visible and more outspoken if she is to be taken seriously.
I don’t know what will happen in the next academic year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it included sanctions and the departure of another prominent figure.
UNC can choose to give answers to its students, alumni and faculty. When that finally happens, the “Carolina Way” will mean something again. !