On second try, the NCAA must take a deeper look at UNC-CH

July 2, 2014 

Jay Smith, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and frequent critic of the wretched excesses of the athletic program, had it right this time, as he has many times during the three years of unfolding academic and athletics scandal.

In response to the news that the NCAA, college athletics’ governing body, will be reopening an investigation into the athletics/academic scandal in Chapel Hill, Smith said embarrassment was the main motivator for the NCAA. “They stopped ignoring the UNC case because they couldn’t get away with it anymore,” Smith said. He has been courageous throughout this scandal, daring to speak out even as too many faculty members who should have stood up kept their seats.

Indeed, more than 30 retired faculty members urged the current faculty to stand up in a letter to The News & Observer. Another person who spoke out, former reading specialist Mary Willingham, has filed a lawsuit claiming she was demoted after she reported that some athletes were not prepared for college work.

The NCAA has been a weak-willed overseer of athletics, serving mainly as a conduit for multibillion-dollar entertainment contracts. Various “reforms” in academic qualification standards have had little if any effect in terms of ensuring that student-athletes really are students.

Protecting the status quo

The NCAA has been long on pronouncement and short on substance for years. It has, rather, protected a status quo that’s sweet indeed for schools reaping lucrative television revenues and for coaches of major schools making several million dollars a year in compensation even as tuition levels for average students have far outpaced inflation.

The NCAA closed a previous investigation into UNC athletics two years ago. That had university officials breathing easier and reassuring alumni that no more sanctions were forthcoming. But then came interviews with former athletes who detailed the efforts with certain classes to keep them eligible for sports. Rashad McCants, a star on the 2005 men’s national championship basketball team, said that he was steered into phony classes and that coach Roy Williams was aware of it. It was too much for the NCAA to ignore.

Even before McCants spoke out and noted he’d made the dean’s list one semester when he didn’t even attend class, the university commissioned a high-priced Washington lawyer, Kenneth Wainstein, to conduct what UNC-CH officials said would be the definitive investigation.

Credibility weakened

The NCAA apparently has received information from Wainstein, and Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall also has been on the case. The two people blamed for the academic scandal by the university are cooperating. Former African studies dean Julius Nyang’oro and department administrator Debbie Crowder have been talking with Woodall’s and Wainstein’s investigators.

So now the NCAA, which would like for this to go away just as surely as university officials would, had little choice but to reopen its investigation.

The NCAA’s credibility has been weakened by its response to the UNC scandal. And now the NCAA’s loss of face might have serious consequences for UNC, should the organization decide it needs to do something drastic in terms of sanctions to restore its reputation.

UNC system President Tom Ross and Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt now own this crisis. It was not of their making, and it’s true that the university has put reforms in place. But campus officials also have been inconsistent on the release of information about the scandal and have treated it as a public relations problem instead of a profoundly serious crisis that has undermined the university’s academic integrity.

This crisis doesn’t need to be “managed.” It needs to be faced. Meaningful action needs to be taken, and all the facts and all the chapters of this story need to be candidly disclosed. Instead, it seems more chapters just keep getting added.

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