Carolina In The Crosshairs

PHILADELPHIA– This was another sad day on Tobacco Road.

The University of North Carolina has always placed a value on academic and athletic excellence. But the Tar Heels’ pristine reputation took a huge hit Wednesday after the release of the findings of an eight month investigation conducted by Kenneth Wainstein, a former U.S. Justice official, who looked into academic fraud within the former Department of African and Afro-American Studies from 1993 through 2011.

Wainstein’s findings in the 131-page report concluded there was a lack of institutional oversight for nearly two decades that allowed student-athletes to receive automatic A’s and B’s in no show, independent study courses where students never spoke with a professor and were only required to turn in single papers at the end of the term “that were often plagiarized or padded with fluff.” The report has tarnished the image of the school’s football program and beloved basketball program and other sports at the school.

More than 3,100 students were enrolled in the “shadow curriculum” from 1993 through 2011. Nearly half were athletes, mostly football or men’s basketball players, who were often deliberately steered there by academic counselors to improve poor grade point averages and keep them eligible to play for Carolina sports teams, the report said.

Wainstein had the cooperation of former department chairman Julius Nyango’oro and retired office administrator Deborah Crowder, who created the courses and graded the students’ work by herself. Crowder told Wainstein that she had been motivated by a desire to help struggling athletes.

Crowder was joined in the scheme by the chairman of the department, JNyang’oro who became the professor of record for many of the fake classes and continued the scheme after Crowder retired in 2008, offering six additional bogus courses.

“I think it’s very clear that this is an academic an athletic and a university problem,” UNC chancellor Carol Folt said, who added the school has fired or begun disciplinary action against nine unnamed employees.

Carolina has done the right thing by cooperating with the NCAA.

But did the school really have a choice?

The NCAA re-opened its investigation in June and, with this new information, has the option of handing down penalties that range from a reduction in scholarships to vacating wins during that period. The Committee on Infractions placed North Carolina’s football program on three years’ probation in 2012 and led to a post season ban and the reduction of 15 scholarships over a five year period after an investigation found that a tutor had completed coursework for several players. Additionally, the investigation found that seven players received thousands of dollars in valuables from sports agent or people associated with agents. Additionally, North Carolina football fired football head coach Butch Davis in the summer before the 2011 season. In 2013, the district attorney of Orange County, N.C., where the university is located, initiated prosecution against five people involved in the scandal for violations of the state law about sports agents. Among the charged included the tutor found by the NCAA to have provided inappropriate academic assistance to players.

That was one tutor.

But, if education is the foundation of what the NCAA stands for, the scope of this cheating scandal looks far greater. And the fact it has touched basketball has made it headline news. Carolina is college basketball royalty. The Tar Heels won three NCAA men’s basketball tournaments during the period in question, in 1993 under Dean Smith and in 2005 and 2009 under current coach Roy Williams.

The Wainstein report found that AFAM classes were offered as far back as the Dean Smith era. Some 54 basketball players were enrolled in one or more classes from 1993 through 1997 when the iconic Smith was the head coach, 17 while Bill Guthridge was in charge from 1997 to 2000.

There were 42 enrollments in bogus classes from 2000 through 2003 when Matt Doherty was coach and 167 since Williams took over in 2003.

Both Williams and Doherty spoke with investigators. But Smith and Guthridge were not available because of health reasons. Doherty told investigators he inherited the academic support system developed by Smith and was advised not to change it. He said he was aware AFAM classes were the easiest major on campus and that AFAM professors were student-athlete friendly but had no reason to question the legitimacy of the courses.

Williams, assistant coach Joe Holiday and academic counselor Wayne Walden told investigators they inherited a team that mostly majored in AFAM. Five of the 15 players on Williams’ first team and 10 of the 15 on his 2005 championship team were majoring in AFAM. According to the report he went on to indicate he became increasingly uncomfortable with that clustering and told Holiaday “after a year or two” to make sure basketball and Academic Services were not steering players to that department.

In June of last year, Rashad McCants, the second leading scorer on the 2005 title team who had a brief career in the NBA, came out with a blockbuster, telling ESPN’s “Between the Lines” that tutors wrote papers for him and the Williams, who was aware of AFAM, offered to swap a course to keep him eligible, an accusation Williams flatly denied.

The Wainstein report never implicated Williams, choosing to believe what he said to investigators, The fact McCants refused to cooperate with the investigation has made his testimony against Williams unreliable. But if the academic fraud is as wide spread as reported and it can be proven there were players used phony courses to maintain their eligibility, we may be entering a brave new world of enforcement.

The NCAA, which loves to talk about reform, has forced schools to vacate Final Four appearances in men’s basketball in the past for offenses ranging from point shaving to players signing professional contracts while still in college to a player signing with an agent and playing a academically ineligible player because his SAT score was ruled invalid.

But they have never forced a school to take down a championship banner.

Carolina basketball is in the cross hairs. It is painful thinking about a model program being reduced to a basketball factory, particularly for the proud fans in that state, who have always looked at their university as Blue Heaven, a beacon of light in a corrupt world and a team that had a 50 year history of winning with honor.