CHAPEL HILL — A long, memorable day here, to be sure, in Chapel Hill – a day that brought yet another black mark to a North Carolina athletic department that has for the longest time been trying to move on, and move on, following one scandal after the next. When will it end?
The latest in an ongoing saga: Rashad McCants, one of the best players on North Carolina’s 2005 national championship team, came out and alleged some serious academic improprieties. That tutors did his work. That he went to class about half the time. That he took suspect no-show Afro- and African-American Studies courses.
And, most damning of all, that coach Roy Williams knew about it. McCants made the claims during an interview with ESPN’s Outside the Lines, which aired the interview on Friday. Naturally, his comments fueled a firestorm of reaction.
People have been quick to discredit McCants. He is, after all, remembered as a loose-lipped loose cannon – a guy who never hid his sour mood and never made a secret of his thoughts, no matter how crazy they seemed. Once, he compared playing at UNC to being in prison. Among his tattoos is the phrase, “Born to be hated, dying to be loved.”
Enigmatic. That’s the word some have used to describe McCants. Mercurial. That’s another one.
John Henson, the former UNC forward who played with the Tar Heels from 2009 through 2012, wrote on Twitter that McCants was “ certified bonkers” and “ disreputable.” That kind of reaction was predictable from former UNC players, who were quick to defend the program, and Roy Williams, while admonishing McCants.
Here’s the timeline of events today, in case you need a refresher: ESPN.com posted its Outside the Lines story a little before 9 a.m. By around noon, UNC released statements from Williams and Bubba Cunningham, the athletic director, reacting to McCants’ allegations.
Williams denied wrongdoing, and denied McCants’ assertion that Williams guided him to no-show AFAM courses.
Williams’ statement, in part:
“I strongly disagree with what Rashad (McCants) has said. In no way did I know about or do anything close to what he says and I think the players whom I have coached over the years will agree with me. I have spent 63 years on this earth trying to do things the right way and the picture he portrays is not fair to the University or me.”
Cunningham, meanwhile, said it was “disappointing,” the academic experience that McCants described.
“I welcome the opportunity to speak with Rashad McCants about returning to UNC to continue his academic career – just as we have welcomed many former student-athletes interested in completing their degrees,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham also encouraged McCants to speak with Kenneth Wainstein, the former federal prosecutor UNC has hired to investigate past issues mixing academics and athletics.
“I have gotten to know some of Mr. McCants’ teammates, and I know that claims about their academic experience have affected them deeply,” Cunningham said. “They are adamant that they had a different experience at UNC-Chapel Hill than has been portrayed by Mr. McCants and others. I am impressed with their love for Carolina and passion for their education. Several of them have continued to take classes and finish their degrees and all of them are proud of their academic achievements. We, too, are proud of them.”
Later in the day, 16 members of UNC’s 2005 national championship team – every member of the team except for McCants – released a statement of their own. They refuted McCants’ claims, defended Williams and praised their experience at UNC.
“We are proud of our accomplishments both on and off the floor at UNC,” that statement read. “With conviction, each one of us is proud to say that we attended class and did our own academic work. … We also want to make it clear that Coach Williams and his staff operated with the highest level of ethics and integrity within their respective roles. … In light of the comments made by Rashad on ESPN Outside the Lines, we want to state that our personal academic experiences are not consistent with Rashad's claims. We know that Coach Williams did not have any knowledge of any academic impropriety, and further that Coach Williams would not have tried to manipulate a player's schedule.”
Rashad said, Roy said. Rashad said, his teammates said. That’s what this boils down to: the word of McCants vs. Williams’ words, and the words of McCants’ former teammates. Only one of those individuals, far as I can tell, agreed to be interviewed. McCants went behind a camera and answered questions. His answers, in large part, according to Outside the Lines, were consistent with his academic transcript.
Though there are things that the transcript can’t verify. Like McCants’ assertion that tutors did his work. Or that Williams intervened in his near-ineligibility and steered him to no-show classes.
In cases like that, it’s the word of McCants against the word of Williams. Do you believe a guy who went through his share of issues at UNC and during his life after college – though none of those issues so serious that they required a suspension or a court appearance? Or do you do believe a guy whose very reputation – and, perhaps, career – is at stake?
Williams, by every measure, is the more reputable of characters here. No one would dispute that. Then again, if college sports has taught us much of anything in recent years, it’s that it’s reasonable -- and appropriate -- to question those in authority. That’s a notion that should have always been understood, but the hero worship of coaches -- of people who get paid to win games and make alumni feel better about their sports teams -- sometimes clouds it.
Still, Williams deserves the benefit of the doubt. His players haven’t been perfect -- memories of last summer, and P.J. Hairston’s misdeeds, won’t fade any time soon -- but his passion for his alma mater is undeniable. He cares deeply about his role at UNC, and he sees himself as a caretaker to what Dean Smith built over decades.
Still, it doesn’t seem right to simply dismiss McCants’ comments because he has said and done some strange things. Or because, it’s widely assumed, that McCants and Williams didn’t get along. Could McCants have fabricated parts of his story? Or embellished it? It’s possible. Some people who covered him, like CBS Sports columnist Gregg Doyel, for one, wouldn’t be surprised to learn McCants had done such a thing.
Yet McCants’ portrayal of his time at UNC isn’t all that unique. Michael McAdoo said counselors who worked with UNC athletes knew about the no-show AFAM courses. Deunta Williams and Bryon Bishop said no-show AFAM courses were a way to keep athletes on the field. McAdoo, Williams and Bishop all played football at UNC, but some of what they said echoes some of the things McCants said.
The difference now, of course, is that a high-profile former UNC basketball player is speaking out. That’s a first.
So what’s it mean, exactly, and what might come of this? My guess: Nothing.
For years, the NCAA has shown no interest in investigating UNC’s no-show AFAM classes, and their role in keeping athletes eligible. Easy classes, of course, are one thing. They exist at every school. And athletes, and others, undoubtedly benefit from them everywhere. Or, at least their GPAs benefit.
The question at UNC, though, isn’t about whether the no-show classes were easy. It’s about what, exactly, they really required of athletes, and whether the university knowingly steered athletes into them knowing that they’d receive high grades for doing little to no work. That could constitute academic fraud.
On the surface, it appears that happened. But for the NCAA to get involved, it would likely take UNC admitting academic fraud. John Infante, an NCAA rules expert, wrote about this on his popular ByLaw Blog. Infante wrote:
“If UNC does not consider steering athletes toward the paper classes to be a violation of academic policies, the NCAA cannot even start the process of finding an academic fraud violation. And if McCants had a paper written for him but would have been eligible even if he had failed the class, that is not an academic fraud violation. After McCants’ comments, the best reason for the NCAA to get involved is still the grade changes which were reported early last year.”
In other words: Don’t expect any NCAA action unless UNC goes asking for it. How likely is that to happen?
Amid another sordid mess, that’s the easiest question to answer of all.