Thoughts on UNC Response to NCAA’s 2nd Amended NOA

I let the most recent UNC Response to the NCAA’s 2nd Amended Notice of Allegations, released last month, sit with me for the last couple weeks.  I experienced many reactions, which overwhelmed to the point of white noise, and sensed that I needed to let them simmer.  A mailing from UNC Athletics received in April, celebrating national title #43 to ask for $43, $430, or $4300, only added to the mix of muddled thoughts.   This “43 Campaign” launched at the very same time UNC’s legal team worked to complete the Response, and I found it startling that Athletics would confidently include championships the University has the potential to lose.  Did the Rams Club think about the implications of including the 2005 men’s basketball national championship?  Do people in Athletics think about the 2005 men’s basketball team?  I do, often.  As a 2004 graduate, I attended concurrently with the athletes who earned that title, yet likely did not enjoy an educational experience comparable to mine.  Those athletes deserve to keep that title, but does the University?  And should Athletics include it in a campaign to solicit donations?

I am done simmering and will share some initial thoughts.

While the University’s purpose is to make the argument that the NCAA has no authority to declare and enforce penalties because no NCAA bylaws violations occurred, the ideas presented in the Response hold far-reaching implications.  Are these assertions reflective of a consensus position on the nature and operation of athletic departments within higher education institutions?  I doubt Carolina is going rogue.

I do not understand how the University is able to make the claim stated in Point 4 in the Introduction: “That no one in the Department of Athletics took improper advantage of the Courses. There is no allegation that any coach or employee of the Department of Athletics violated a bylaw or directed a student-athlete to take one of these courses.” There is much evidence to the contrary.  Dan Kane and The News & Observer‘s tireless reporting, Jay Smith and Mary Willingham’s thoroughly-researched Cheated, and the email correspondence that has been released, show that Athletics personnel were attuned to the easy nature of some AFRI and AFAM courses and suggested athletes enroll in them.  All one has to do is talk to a few student-athletes who attended UNC in the early 2000s (when I was there) to learn about academic advising practices within athletics.  The attempt to distance the Academic Support Program for Student Athletes (ASPSA) from the Department of Athletics by noting that ASPSA academic counselors were employed by and reported to the College of Arts and Sciences is an exercise in semantics.  (See pages 12-13.)

The amount of time and resources UNC has exhausted to fight the idea that systemic academic fraud existed is frustrating and angering.  Wouldn’t it have been better, and honest and ethical, to stop resisting, admit the academic fraud also included people employed in Athletics, investigate to learn how this played out, and set up best practices going forward?  Carolina could have owned this, and been the leader in the development of substantive reform, because, as the UNC Response implies, what happened at Chapel Hill likely goes on, to varying degrees, at other institutions.  (See pages 20-27.)  For me, the story within the scandal which encapsulates its tragic nature most powerfully is what happened to Rashad McCants when he came forward to talk about his schedule of classes during the spring 2005 semester when Carolina earned its first national title under Roy Williams.  The image of Jay Bilas interviewing Williams with some of his former athletes standing behind him, some uncomfortably, as the coach threw McCants under the bus, is haunting.

As a point of comparison, my coach at UNC, Michael Whittlesey, had his Ph.D., taught one class each semester, and consistently asked about our coursework – in the office, on the run, while traveling to competition.  He even attended a university orchestra concert when I played, as a show of support.  Like Whittlesey, and all college coaches, Williams is an educator.  His response to McCants, to bear down, mount a defensive campaign, and prioritize his well-being and job over the education of his players, is telling.  That he called upon former players, some of whom were McCants’s teammates, to stand behind him, literally, in this case, is potentially exploitative, and should be embarrassing.

Also frustrating is one central line of argument in the Response: athletics and academics should be understood as separate, and should be treated separately.  This idea runs throughout, but is more conspicuously expressed in Point 5 in the Introduction: “That the issues before this Panel were academic in nature and the result of inadequate academic oversight unrelated to the Department of Athletics.”  (See also pages 11-12.)  Sometimes this idea of separate spheres is valid; like, for example, the very important principle that academic units control curricular decisions.  But more powerfully and damaging, it feeds into the problematic, overarching discourse that education exists in academic departments and sport exists in athletic departments.  This dichotomy is legally dangerous, because the entire intercollegiate athletics system is predicated on amateurism, and what holds up amateurism is the idea that participating in college sports is educational.  Furthermore, this line of binary thinking is what got us into this mess in the first place.  Athletics should not exist separately and autonomously from the rest of the institution, unless universities decide to abandon amateurism and its accompanying tax-exempt educational nonprofit status, and professionalize.  Higher education institutions should not be able to call college sports educational in some contexts and declare college sports separate from academics in other contexts.  What the University may be doing here, by fighting the NCAA, is making both of them – the institutions and the membership association – vulnerable to looming legal challenges (Jenkins, etc.) to collegiate amateurism.

Postscript: You may wonder if I knew about the “anomalous courses” in AFRI/AFAM, especially since I was a student-athlete, and many of my friends were student-athletes, in 2000-2004, a high-water mark of the scandal.  Despite the University’s strange decision to make the case that the courses were “widely known,” I did not learn about them until the scandal broke in 2011-2012.  I contest the idea presented in the UNC Response: “The CWT Report supports that the Courses were generally available and states that the availability of the Courses was widely known across campus to all students through various means. ‘First, there was the general word-of-mouth network on campus. With up to 400 enrollments in some semesters, their existence was hardly a secret. As with any course that offers an easy path to a high grade, word of these classes got around.’” (See page 7.)  Believe it or not, I, like many (most?) ambitious Carolina students, took the Honor Code very seriously, and operated on the (naïve?) assumption that the University took it very seriously, too.  The Honor Code was posted in every classroom.  Every blue book and scantron included a box with the code, which students read (presumably) and signed before turning in their work.  At least I think the Honor Code was powerful and everywhere; now I question my memory.  I am confident that I would have been the pesky student pounding on an administrator’s door, had I known about the “anomalous courses.”  I reject the University’s (bizarre) position that the courses were widely known; I would have been one of countless bright-eyed and bushy-tailed do-gooder undergraduate students eager to report injustice.  The offices in the Steele and South Buildings would have been overrun.  Plus, practically speaking, if the courses truly were “widely known,” NC State students and fans would have learned about and exposed this fraud much earlier.  I propose a more realistic framing: various clusters within the university knew about the “anomalous courses,” and Athletics most certainly was one of them.

Postscript 2: The UNC Response makes the argument that non-athlete students had equal access to “anomalous courses.”  One form of subtext here is the idea that non-athlete students have not fallen under the same sort of scrutiny as student-athletes.  This line of thinking is a non-starter.  Athletes are used to being held to a higher standard.  They crave excellence and strive for perfection on the field or court or track of play, and eschew mediocrity.  Their academic performance is subjected to far more, and more frequent, scrutiny than the vast majority of non-athlete students.  Athletes understand this; most embrace it.  I am disappointed that my alma mater has decided to potentially harm perceptions of the quality of my education at what I felt was a top public university in the United States and world.  More importantly, I am disheartened that many athletes were bamboozled by an institution of higher education that promised the quality of education I enjoyed.

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