Through three years of allegations, investigations and revelations regarding an athletics program’s corruption of a university’s academic mission, UNC-Chapel Hill officials have treated one embarrassment after another as a public relations problem. Now, following some serious assertions by former basketball star Rashad McCants, they continue to deal in issuing statements, hoping perhaps that they can simply ride out problems that seem to be growing only deeper.
Chancellor Carol Folt, relatively new to the job and never before in a position overseeing a huge athletics enterprise, should have responded to McCants’ assertions forcefully and dramatically. The statement was a disappointing reaction, or nonreaction, on her part.
But perhaps it is not surprising. The university has contended that allegations of academic fraud in the African studies program, wherein athletes were allegedly steered to phony classes to keep them eligible for sports, were exaggerated. One report led by former Gov. Jim Martin even concluded that the problems in the program did not constitute an athletics scandal.
McCants told ESPN in a program that aired Friday that he was steered to phony classes, that he made the Dean’s List one semester when he didn’t even go to class, that athletes were not expected to perform academically and, most disturbing, that basketball Coach Roy Williams knew what was going on.
Williams denied McCants’ statements, but the account provided by the former star and member of the 2005 NCAA championship team nevertheless demands more scrutiny of what Williams knew and what he did or didn’t do. McCants’ version of his academic experience also has other effects: It challenges the NCAA to review whether UNC players were truly academically eligible to compete, it will push the ongoing investigation by attorney Kenneth Wainstein to go back further in probing the athletics program’s academic performance and it reinforces claims of academic shenanigans by former academic adviser Mary Willingham.
Everyone on campus seems to be waiting on Wainstein, a former federal prosecutor called in to do the final and definitive investigation. Clearly, he’ll now have to talk to McCants and other members of the 2005 national championship team, and he will have to go back before that year and open the books on this storied basketball program.
This is not to say that all McCants’ assertions are irrefutable or that previous claims of lax academic oversight by other athletes are gospel. But it certainly appears that the university’s belief that all it has here is a bad-publicity problem – resulting from thorough reporting by The News & Observer’s Dan Kane – is woefully misguided.
Folt needs to take public charge of a spiraling problem with a news conference. She can pursue facts on her own by meeting with Williams and McCants (and perhaps she’d like to have another meeting with Willingham). This is not something that can wait. This is a clear and present crisis.