CHAPEL HILL — In the middle of a panel discussion at the University of North Carolina on Tuesday about the state of college athletics, civil-rights historian Taylor Branch offered a little personal insight into just how out of whack things have gotten.
"I've been told within the last 48 hours here that athletes who want to come talk to me about the equities of college sports here in Chapel Hill cannot come see me even privately, because their coaches won't let them," said Branch, a visiting professor at North Carolina who has recently become an outspoken critic of the NCAA.
"This is not a place of free enquiry, which is what it should be, if you have that kind of control vested in people who are not even on the faculty of this university."
Branch made that point early in a panel discussion with former North Carolina president Bill Friday and Duke professor Charles Clotfelter before a standing-room only crowd at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center Theater. Both Branch and Clotfelter have recently published books about the state of college athletics, while Friday has spent decades pushing NCAA reform.
All three offered specific, and disparate, priorities for change, but the Q&A session that followed suggested the university might want to worry about fixing itself before it moves on to the NCAA.
First, English professor Jane Thrailkill revealed that the university's development staff identifies donors in its database who refuse to give to the university until chancellor Holden Thorp is dismissed because he "messed with the football team" by firing former coach Butch Davis amid nine major NCAA violations. "Shameful," Thrailkill called it.
Public policy professor Hodding Carter, who served on the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics with Friday, took the opportunity to criticize the North Carolina faculty for its lack of outrage over the hiring of "a big-time coach with a big-time salary," like Davis, long before he ever steered the football program into trouble.
"As far as I can see, on one campus after another, the silence of the faculty is very much the silence of the lambs," Carter said, "allowing the slaughter of the integrity of the institutions they serve to go forward."
Former offensive coordinator John Shoop, a member of that same "big-time" staff, then stood to ask what was essentially a rhetorical question about the university putting its image and reputation ahead of the rights of students in its response to the NCAA investigation, specifically mentioning Devon Ramsay, who successfully appealed an NCAA decision with the belated help of a lawyer.
"The university comes first. I've heard that a million times," Shoop said. "From where I sit, the men and women who make up the university are the university. If we're not going to advocate for them, I'm confused."
When North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham took the microphone to respond to Shoop, an audience member who identified himself as a North Carolina graduate stood up from his seat to challenge Cunningham to allow his athletes to speak with Branch in a bit of guerilla activism.
Cunningham acquiesced, but not before an academic forum had become yet another public airing of football grievances, underlining just how raw and deep the wounds remain six months after Thorp fired Davis, with the NCAA's long-delayed final judgment still yet to arrive.
As the questioners from the audience pounded away at issues related to the football scandal, the panelists looked a bit perplexed at how what began as a reasonable and thoughtful discussion of NCAA reform had been hijacked by a family squabble - proving, once again, that all politics is local.