Cheated turns over a rock, fully exposing UNC’s “student-athlete” scandal

If you remember (or have read about) Watergate, you’ll see how closely that debacle resembles the current scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill. 

At first, a tiny bit of news emerged, indicating that something bad had apparently happened. President Nixon’s minions scoffed at the idea that the break-in amounted to anything, but reporters kept investigating; as the truth began to emerge, the White House went into denial and cover-up operations. In time, the whole truth came out, forcing Nixon to resign.

The UNC scandal has followed the same path. It also began with a breach of security—the security that surrounded the huge UNC operation to recruit top basketball and football players who weren’t close to being able to do academic work and yet keep them eligible. That breach involved football star Michael McAdoo and a plagiarized paper. 

UNC officials were desperate to prevent the public from finding out anything more than the tiniest, least damaging scraps of information, but the truth got out and the scandal was instrumental in causing Chancellor Holden Thorp to resign.

A few people smelled a problem much deeper than just one player’s questionable paper and wouldn’t swallow the official “nothing to see here” line. Due to their persistence, we eventually learned a great deal that UNC officials wanted to keep secret, namely how terribly deceptive and fraudulent its “keep the players eligible” scheme was. 

Two of those people were Mary Willingham, who had for years worked in UNC’s Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling, trying to help students with academic weaknesses handle the work, and Professor Jay Smith, who has served in UNC’s history department since 1990. Together, they have written a book about the whole affair, Cheated. 

It’s an insider book laced with just the right amount of indignation about the way the university has dealt with its star players—and also the way it tried to silence critics of its eligibility system. “The addiction to athletics, and to the revenues and alleged good will that they generate, has rendered good people mute in the face of abuses they know they should not tolerate,” Willingham and Smith write. 

Although UNC has tried to maintain an image of running squeaky clean sports programs that ensure student-athletes a high quality education, for decades it has actually been recruiting players who shouldn’t have gotten out of high school, then ushering them through a “curriculum” consisting largely of easy courses with negligible educational value. 

Moreover, the imperative of keeping players eligible has led to double standards in some courses. Cooperative professors would have one set of academic requirements for regular students and another for football and basketball players, who were assured of good grades for doing very little. Their assigned “mentors” often helped inordinately with the slight demands on them.

Even going to class was a burden that the athletic department was glad to lighten for its key players. Willingham and Smith observe that until the mid-90s, the department had “classroom checkers” monitor attendance of the players. “At some point, however, the expectation of attendance went by the wayside, at least in many lecture courses (in addition to all those independent studies in which no one had ever shown up for anything),” they write.

Independent study courses were crucial to the project of keeping athlete grade averages high enough for eligibility but without any effort. For that, one faculty member in particular was extremely obliging: Julius Nyang’oro, chairman of the African and Afro-American Studies Department. A zealous Tar Heel fan, Nyang’oro began to let some of the athletes who badly needed easy, high-grade credits take “independent study” courses with him. 

At first, the number was small. But once he and the athletics department figured out that the administration was paying no attention, they steadily increased the number of athletes who “earned” As in courses that never met and where the only requirement was turning in a paper that was often plagiarized or written by someone else.

Enrolling star players and keeping them eligible was far more important than their educational needs. Mary Willingham came face to face with that on many occasions. She writes about students who told her that they had never had to write anything before, and students could barely read being taken out of a Basic Writing class and placed instead into one of the classes known to yield easy A grades. 

She’s also angry at the deceptive game the coaches play with the athletes they want. “Recruits are told that they will receive ‘world-class’ educations and that these educations, for all their world-classness, will be easily acquired.” That pitch is irresistible to many of the minority students who grow up playing football or basketball, idolizing sports stars, and who think that education is just a matter of occasionally going to class. 

One thing Willingham discovered is that many of UNC’s star recruits got through high school without acquiring even fundamental skills because schools allow them to substitute “portfolios” for actual tests. The coddling of sports stars with low expectations starts early and continues on through college. 

Athletes are familiar with the saying, “No pain, no gain.” That applies every bit as much to learning as to sports, but the people running Eligibility Uber Alles at UNC did all they could to keep their stars from experiencing any stress over coursework. By minimizing the academic work players had to do, the people involved helped to cheat the players out of educations they otherwise could have had.

University administrators were supposed to oversee the athletics department and maintain academic integrity, but they increasingly shirked that job and let the department control itself.

In a sharp essay entitled “The Carolina Way?“, emeritus sociology professor John Shelton Reed likens the situation at UNC to Nobel economist George Stigler’s theory of regulatory capture. Just as industries often manage to influence the agencies set up to regulate them to the point where those agencies are essentially working to protect the industry’s interests, so did the big sports succeed in taking over the university’s oversight system, using it to throw an opaque curtain around its “win at all costs” system.

Once that curtain was parted, the administration revealed its true priorities. Rather than full disclosure, it tried to save face, deflect blame onto the students and “spin” the story as much ado about nothing. Those efforts (both unseemly and expensive) might have worked had it not been for the reporting of Dan Kane of the Raleigh News & Observer, and a few faculty members who had to withstand the opprobrium of administrators and colleagues who badly wanted to “move on.”

Willingham and Smith devote quite a few pages to showing that the problem of universities letting sports success take priority over academics is not unique to UNC. Many others have had similar scandals, and it’s impossible to believe that most big sports schools don’t either violate the letter of the law regarding “student-athletes” or at least its spirit. UNC happened to get caught; many athletics directors around America are nervously wondering, “Are we next?”

Is there a solution? The authors suggest a separation of big sports and education. There might be a lot to be said for that, but how we could get there from here is not at all clear. 

I think we should contemplate the root of problem, which is that so many young athletes, mostly from minority families, grow up thinking that becoming excellent in a sport where the pros make huge money is the goal to strive for. One of Willingham’s students who had great trouble reading and writing told her, “I’m my family’s lottery ticket.” 

Sadly, that’s how many of the “student-athletes” the book is about see the world from their early years on. Many young men let basic education slide so they can try to attract the attention of college coaches, and then let college education slide while they try to attract the attention of pro scouts, but only a fraction of one percent of them will ever sign a professional sports contract. They don’t think about the costs of ignoring school when they see college stars getting drafted and signing multi-million dollar deals.

Until concerned people can somehow replace that sports-lottery mindset in young minority males with an education-first mindset, I suspect that coaches and administrators will continue defying the rules that are supposed to prevent students from being cheated out of education.