Former UNC player ties counselors to no-show classes

dkane@newsobserver.comJanuary 15, 2014 

Michael McAdoo, a key UNC football player in the NCAA's investigation into improper benefits, says he was led by academic counselors to four no-show classes.

ROBERT WILLETT — rwillett@newsobserver.com

A key UNC football player in the NCAA’s investigation into improper benefits says he was led by academic counselors to four no-show classes and that the academic environment for athletes at the university was “a scam.”

Michael McAdoo was kicked off the Tar Heel football team in 2010 because of violations related to having a tutor do improper work on three term papers. When he sued to get back on a year later, claiming a breach of contract, the university fought back: It had kept him on his athletic scholarship.

Indeed, he said, he was in a class – AFAM 280: Blacks in North Carolina. It, too, like the three tied up in the NCAA investigation, never met. It was a no-show class, one that has led to a fraud charge against Julius Nyang’oro, the former African and Afro-American Studies chairman who was supposed to teach it. The class was filled with football players.

“They pretty much put me in that class,” McAdoo said of the counselors in the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes. “They pretty much told me ... that I might want to consider that class and I really don’t have much time to think about it, so (I might) want to take that class while it was available.”

That class, and more than 200 others that are now either confirmed or suspected of having never met, are now being used as evidence in a lawsuit by attorneys representing college athletes who want a cut of the revenues when their names, images and likenesses are sold by universities.

The athletes are using the case to contest the NCAA’s claim that the athletes were getting a meaningful education in exchange for helping universities and the NCAA make millions of dollars from their exploits on the football field or basketball court.

This week, Mary Willingham, the UNC learning specialist who blew the whistle on the lecture-style classes that never met, was named as a witness for the attorneys representing current and former college athletes in a class-action suit against the NCAA. The lawsuit is commonly known as the O’Bannon case, after former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon. He sued after seeing his likeness being used in EA sports video games without being paid.

The case, nearly 5 years old, has a trial date in June. Michael Hausfeld, one of the attorneys representing the athletes, said Willingham’s experiences as a former learning specialist for the athletes’ support program, plus her research into the academic abilities of those athletes, make her a strong witness. She would counter the NCAA’s claims that athletes can be barred from being paid for their athletic efforts because the universities are providing them an education.

“The NCAA is arguing that it is necessary to impose restraints on the athletes because in doing so, it promotes the integration of academics and athletics,” Hausfeld said. “We think that’s patently false, and we have other statistics that demonstrate that very vividly. Mary adds a personal experience which further highlights the falsity of that representation.”

An NCAA spokeswoman said the association, which regulates college athletics, would have no comment. UNC officials were unavailable for comment.

Evaluating the data

Willingham filed a seven-page “declaration” of support for the athletes in U.S. District Court in Oakland, Calif., this week. In her filing, she refers to her research on reading levels that created a national storm when CNN recently publicized it as part of a story on the academic preparedness of athletes in Division I college sports programs.

She had been talking about her research in emails to UNC officials and in a presentation at the university for several months prior to CNN’s report.

According to her court statement, that research found that of 182 athletes screened between 2005 and 2012, about 60 percent had reading scores at fourth- to eighth-grade levels, while about 10 percent were “functionally illiterate.” She wrote that 39 percent were found to be learning disabled; some of those and others had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Eighty-five percent of the 182 athletes were in football and men’s basketball.

The data is based on the Scholastic Abilities Test for Adults, which was given to the athletes as they took a course during the second summer session at UNC before beginning their first full year, Willingham has said.

UNC officials have pointedly questioned Willingham’s findings, and contend she has not explained how she arrived at them or fully shared her data. Earlier this week, she turned over the data, minus the names of the athletes, to Provost Jim Dean.

“Ms. Willingham’s findings are based on a data set we recently received from her,” said UNC spokeswoman Karen Moon. “We are still in the process of evaluating her data.”

‘Felt like it was all a scam’

Willingham’s filing offers additional details about the academic performance of football players. She said members of this past season’s team that won the 2013 Belk Bowl had 17 players who had a combined GPA of 2.3, “and together they had 29 F’s, 53 D’s and 10 semesters of academic probation.” She said those athletes took “an inordinate” number of drama classes at UNC, though none had a major or minor in that field of study.

“They took those classes only because they are historically passable,” she wrote.

Willingham also said the tutoring program routinely used the no-show classes in the African studies department to keep athletes eligible to play sports. Investigations led or backed by UNC have found more than 200 confirmed or suspected no-show classes since the mid-1990s, with athletes accounting for nearly half of the enrollments.

UNC officials have contended the classes were not created to specifically benefit athletes because nonathletes were also enrolled and everyone received the same high grades.

McAdoo, in a phone interview Wednesday, said Beth Bridger, a former counselor for football players in the academic support program for athletes, steered him to the no-show classes. Bridger left the university several months ago and has not responded to requests for comment.

He said the counselors told the athletes they were supposed to pick their classes, but then the counselors would give them a list of classes they should take. They were all classes that counselors knew the athletes could pass, he said.

McAdoo said he was put in his first no-show class the spring semester of his freshman year. He said counselors told him, “it’s pretty much a class that you take just to get your GPA up.”

He said he and the other football players were happy to have the classes. There was no class time, and the papers could be completed at semester’s end. That meant they could work harder on football, or have more down time from football.

“I didn't think twice about it,” McAdoo said. “I was young and they was like, ‘You could get a quick three (credit) hours.’ 

McAdoo said he never received anything less than an A-minus in the classes until he got in trouble when the university and the NCAA found that he had asked someone he thought was still a tutor to help with his footnoting and bibliography. That was for a no-show class that was supposed to teach him intermediate Swahili.

When he made the paper public as part of his lawsuit, rival N.C. State fans found numerous examples of plagiarism. The fact that it wasn’t caught by anyone in the university or the NCAA was the first clue of the no-show classes.

McAdoo said counselors told the athletes it was acceptable to copy passages from sources so long as they were attributed. That paper, and any others he wrote, he said, were reviewed by a tutor and two counselors in the academic support program before the paper was turned in.

The NCAA violations cost him two years of eligibility at UNC. He was signed by the Baltimore Ravens as a hardship case, making the league minimum, but was later cut. He is now playing for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Canadian Football League but hopes to sign on with an NFL team next season. He did not graduate.

“I felt like I was done wrong,” McAdoo said of his time at UNC. “The university didn’t stand up; they didn’t have my back. They said academics is the first thing they were going to push – ‘You are going to do academics and then play sports.’ But come to find out it just felt like it was all a scam.”

Kane: 919-829-4861

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