CHAPEL HILL — When a transcript bearing Julius Peppers’ name came into public view earlier this week, some wondered how an athlete with such poor grades could have remained eligible to play football and basketball at the University of North Carolina.
Peppers, though, did enough to pass through a system that didn’t require even academic mediocrity.
The transcript, once publicly accessible on UNC’s website, showed that Peppers received D’s or F’s in 11 classes, began his college career with a 1.08 GPA in his first semester, never raised it above 1.95 and yet was never academically ineligible.
He came close, though. Peppers ended his spring semester in 2001 with a 1.82 GPA, according to the transcript. According to UNC’s minimum academic eligibility standards for athletes then, Peppers would have needed a GPA of at least a 1.9 to play football in the fall of 2001.
Peppers’ transcript doesn’t list any grades after the 2001 spring semester, but what UNC had identified as a “test transcript” – which mirrors Peppers’ transcript almost exactly – offers clues about how he kept his eligibility.
According to the test transcript, Peppers in the spring of 2001 appears to have received a B-plus in one course – Black Nationalism – in which he originally received an incomplete. He also appears to have received an A in the summer of 2001 in an African and Afro-American Studies seminar.
Those two grades – the B-plus and the A – would have improved Peppers’ GPA enough for him to be eligible to play football in 2001, his final season before entering the NFL.
Jay Smith, a UNC history professor who has taken a leadership role among faculty members who have grown disgusted by continued academic problems related to athletics, studied Peppers’ transcript with interest.
“Assuming it’s a legitimate transcript – and I guess everything suggests that it is – I was struck by the very poor showing in the student’s very first semester,” Smith said. “And (by) the pattern that quickly developed of the student doing a kind of high-wire act – barely staying eligible, or even falling under the eligibility bar in the course of the academic year and then getting back over the bar with courses over the summer.”
A 1.5 for sophomores
Peppers remained eligible thanks to courses from the AFAM department, which has recently come under scrutiny after an internal UNC investigation uncovered 54 suspect AFAM courses between 2007 and 2011. The problems in those courses ranged from no-show professors to unauthorized grade changes.
In AFAM courses, Peppers carried a 2.16 GPA. In non-AFAM courses, he received a 1.41 GPA. A similar disparity existed between the work Peppers did during the regular academic year and in the summer.
Peppers produced a 1.65 GPA – below a C-minus average – in his first six fall and spring semesters, but he recorded a 2.93 GPA in the four summer classes for which letter grades are listed on his transcript. UNC officials won’t confirm that the transcript is Peppers’, but they have said Peppers was academically eligible to compete.
Carl Carey Jr., who is Peppers’ agent and former academic counselor at UNC, declined Friday to discuss specifics of Peppers’ transcript. But Carey said it wasn’t uncommon during his years at UNC for athletes to find themselves tip-toeing a line – eligibility on one side and ineligibility on the other.
“There are always a significant number of student-athletes that need to make certain grades to have their eligibility before their season begins,” Carey said. “That is not uncommon at all. You see close calls from time to time in every sport.”
Carey, who worked as a UNC athletic department academic counselor from 1998 to 2002, also said it was “irresponsible” to suggest that Peppers was given fraudulent grades so he could remain eligible.
“I cannot think of one case – not one – during the time that I was at North Carolina where a faculty member knew what a student needed in order to be eligible,” Carey said. “Not one single case where a faculty member was told what grade a student-athlete needed to earn.”
To remain eligible during Peppers’ years at UNC – he played on the football team from 1999-2001 – the university required athletes to have at least a 1.5 GPA entering their third semester, a 1.75 entering their fifth semester and a 1.9 entering their seventh semester.
It wasn’t until athletes entered their ninth semester – their fifth year of eligibility – that they would have needed a 2.0 GPA to be academically eligible.
“In retrospect, it’s kind of amazing that the floor was ever that low,” Smith said.
A change in standards
In the fall of 2006, UNC adopted stricter academic eligibility requirements. Athletes must maintain at least a 2.0 GPA after their freshman year. Any athlete who falls below 2.0 is placed on academic probation and allowed to compete as long as the athlete meets the NCAA’s minimum eligibility standard, which requires a 1.8 GPA entering the third semester, a 1.9 entering the fifth semester and a 2.0 after that.
UNC said it would be unlikely for an athlete to be granted probation more than once.
Smith praised UNC’s improved eligibility standard but questioned what it really means.
“I guess that’s one thing that has changed for the positive in the last few years,” he said. “Although, I doubt that the stricter GPA guidelines have done much to change the nature of the overall game that is played. The game is still, it seems to me at most big-time sports universities, to find course schedules that will keep players eligible.”
Carey, meanwhile, reiterated how common it is for athletes at major universities, particularly in football and men’s basketball, to be on the verge of academic ineligibility. The problem, he said, begins in high school when college-bound athletes might barely receive qualifying test scores.
From there, academic struggles intensify, he said.
“Pull any roster in college basketball and football,” Carey said, “and count the number who are very close to the edge.”