Outside the Lines on UNC athletic/academic fraud

Bob Ley devoted most of today’s show to the athletic/academic fraud case at UNC. First Ley interviewed Mary Willingham, the whistleblower who was a learning specialist for seven years in the program that provided academic support to athletes at UNC. Mary (a friend, as I’ve noted previously) stood by her research – prominently covered last week by CNN – showing that a substantial number of athletes admitted to UNC, especially in the profit sports, were reading at the eighth grade level or below, with some reading below the fourth grade level. UNC officials have continued to deny that they admit any students who are not prepared to do university level work. They have also tried, in the past week, variously to discredit Mary’s data and her broader claims – including that she worked with a basketball player who could not read at all. Last Wednesday, the university issued a statement saying it did not believe her and Coach Roy Williams, after last night Wednesday’s home loss to Miami, angrily denied that the university would allow such kids onto campus. When Willingham offered, later in the week, to meet with Roy privately to discuss the academic challenges facing some of his players, he demurred. Yesterday, he told ESPN’s Andy Katz that this – the players’ level of academic preparedness – wasn’t his “world.”

Ley and Willingham also discussed the fraudulent “paper class” system that operated out of African and African-American Studies for years – Willingham confirmed (not for the first time), that she and other advisers in athletics steered athletes to those courses as part of a system concerned first and foremost with maintaining athletes’ eligibility, as opposed to giving them an opportunity to receive a real education. Both in reports and in statements by university officials, UNC has continued to insist that the scandal was essentially the work of two individuals – Julius Nyang’oro, the former chair of AFRI/AFAM and that department’s longtime administrator, Debbie Crowder. In trying to paint the malfeasance as the work of two rogue employees, UNC has frequently deflected attention from the possible complicity of athletics in the scandal. Just last Friday, UNC Provost James Dean, Jr. said that there was no evidence that athletics was involved in the academic fraud, despite the disproportionate degree to which athletes benefited from the bogus courses.

In a panel discussion following the Willingham interview today, several participants on OTL found particularly risible that party line (as do I). Specifically, several of the panelists thought it defied belief that one guy – Nyang’oro – would set up a “Potemkin department,” as Businessweek’s Paul Barrett described it, without any impetus, influence from or collusion with anyone in athletics, despite the enormous benefit that athletics derived from the operation over at least a fifteen year period. Another panelist, David Ridpath, head of the Drake Group devoted to athletic/academic reform, cut to the heart of the matter when he said, “I don’t believe this fraud would have happened but for the benefit to athletics.” On that basis, Ridpath contended, the NCAA has failed in its responsibility to investigate more fully what happened in Chapel Hill, especially since the NCAA has, in the past, punished other schools for lesser academic offenses.

The national conversation about big-time college athletics has shifted substantially over the past two years, as criticism of the NCAA has mounted, especially with regards to its contradictory assertions about the ideals “amateurism” while it oversees and coordinates a multi-billion dollar empire. Those claims of amateurism, in turn, rest critically on the foundation of the NCAA’s putative educational mission. And in the two sports most critical to the NCAA’s and the major conferences’ financial interests, educational attainment is too often blatantly deprioritized, further undermining the credibility of the big time collegiate sports enterprise. UNC, much to the chagrin of many here on campus (including me), has become the poster child for that growing credibility gap, a fact clearly on display on today’s OTL program.

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