Chapel Hill braces for a rare Thursday night football game

jstancill@newsobserver.comOctober 16, 2013 

— The Goodyear blimp will float above town, Franklin Street will throw a block party and some faculty will be riled up.

It can only mean one thing: Thursday night football in Chapel Hill.

The Tar Heels will take on the University of Miami Hurricanes in Kenan Stadium at 7:45 p.m. before a national audience on ESPN.

Thursday night home football contests are a sensitive issue at UNC-Chapel Hill, and for years they were verboten. This is only the second one; the first was in 2009.

Still, given three years of embarrassing headlines about athletic scandals, academic fraud and cash payments by agents to former players, it’s a delicate time for the campus to host a flashy football bash.

On Wednesday, a small group of professors known as the Faculty Reform Group issued a statement taking the university to task for what it said were “exploitative” practices regarding student athletes.

“The practice of admitting athletes with inadequate academic preparation is unfair to academically qualified students who are denied access to UNC classrooms, and it poses multiple threats to academic integrity,” said the group, which wants to see changes in big-time college sports. “The University should refrain from admitting any athlete unprepared for college work.”

The group further advocated that athletes’ scholarship agreements be signed by top university officials, that the university cover long-term health care of injured athletes and that athletes’ representatives have voting rights on conference and NCAA governing boards.

In 2011-12, the most recent data available, the university’s football team ranked last in the Atlantic Coast Conference in the Academic Progress Rate, the NCAA’s measurement for academic performance and retention.

Not a simple equation

Steve Farmer, head of undergraduate admissions, said he’s proud of all of UNC-CH students, but that there is no simple yes-no equation when evaluating prospective students.

“We only admit students who we believe are capable of succeeding academically at the university,” Farmer said. “That’s true whether the student is a recruited student athlete or the student is a rural, first generation college student from someplace far away from Chapel Hill.”

He acknowledged that “it’s hard sometimes to discern who is capable from who’s not capable.”

Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham said he has confidence in the university’s admissions process. He pointed out that he and the provost, Jim Dean, are leading a working group to evaluate the total student athlete experience.

As for the scheduling, Cunningham said Thursday’s game was about nine months in the planning. He said the university has given TV rights to the ACC, which negotiates with the networks. ESPN televises five non-Saturday games a year, and all conference members are expected to help fulfill that obligation.

“We have made it very clear to the conference and to ESPN that we do not want to play midweek games very often,” Cunningham said. “We will only play midweek games during fall break for the students at home.”

Thursday’s game is during fall break, which may ease the campus disruption. University offices won’t be closed but may offer their employees flexible schedules or early departure as long as they make up the work.

The issue was a hot topic at a September faculty meeting, where professors demanded to know why employees’ cars with UNC parking permits were subject to towing before the game. One UNC doctor complained that in 2009, emergency hospital workers emerged from their shift only to discover that their cars were missing.

At the October meeting, the campus police chief, Jeff McCracken, appeared before faculty members to assure them that cars would not be towed except in situations where public safety is threatened. And if it happens, he said, towing fees would not be charged.

‘Mass gathering’ plan

The game will affect visitors, patients and employees at the hospital complex not far from Kenan Stadium. Medical clinics on campus did not schedule any patient appointments after 3 p.m.

The hospital activated its “mass gathering” contingency plan, which includes determining alternate routes for ambulances and essential medical staff, said Dalton Sawyer, director of emergency preparedness and business continuity for UNC Health Care.

Sawyer said five alternate routes are planned, and EMS officials statewide were notified.

The hospital is used to working around big traffic events, Sawyer said. It will help that the pre-game festivities are downtown, away from the medical complex.

“I’m not going to say it’s commonplace,” he said, “but we have a fairly good rhythm and routine.”

The game will cost several hundred dollars more than a normal game because of added bus shuttles, a university spokeswoman said.

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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