Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said a student received an A-minus on a short essay for an African studies class that appeared to have been lifted from Rosa Parks' autobiography. Mary Willingham, a former learning specialist for the athletes, said the A-minus was the grade the student received for the class. It is unclear what grade the student received for the essay. Willingham said it was a class that met, and had other assignments.
CHAPEL HILL — In the battle for public opinion, UNC-Chapel Hill fought back Thursday by showcasing athletes who said they’ve had a good academic experience – in contrast to former players who this week portrayed their education as little more than an eligibility scam.
Thursday’s presentation of “A Day in the Life of a Student-Athlete” took center stage at the university’s trustee meeting, with three football players, a gymnast, a softball standout and basketball point guard Marcus Paige speaking before the board. They were introduced by Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham, who said, “we could not be more proud of what they do.”
Paige, a second-team Academic All-American, said that although his “schedule is so crazy,” he had spent less time in study hall than some of his teammates. He praised the university’s academic advisers who help athletes balance study and practice schedules.
“The people are so ready to help,” said Paige, a sophomore journalism and mass communications major. “They’re always there for you. They want you to succeed.”
The athletes featured Thursday gave a very different view from the one presented on national TV this week as former football players talked of no-show classes and course schedules that were preordained by advisers to maintain athletes’ eligibility. They spoke on ESPN and HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.”
Bryon Bishop, a former player, told HBO that he was instructed to major in African and Afro-American Studies because the classes were easy. “To stay on course for graduation, you’ll need to take these courses,” he said he was told.
In the same broadcast, Mary Willingham, the former athletics tutor and outspoken whistle-blower, demonstrated with flash cards how she had helped players learn phonetic sounds.
On Thursday, Paige vouched for the academic preparedness of his teammates.
“Trust me, we all can read and write,” he said. “We take pride in what we do academically. Our basketball program always has. Coach (Roy) Williams has a great track record with that. ... We understand that at a great academic institution like this, you have to bring it every day in the classroom, and we definitely try to do that.”
The dueling portrayals of the academic experience of UNC-CH athletes come at what could be a turning point in college athletics in the United States. A decision Wednesday by a National Labor Relations Board regional director allows for players at Northwestern University to unionize, classifying them as employees. Though it will no doubt be appealed, the decision has the potential to upend the college sports enterprise.
‘Deep and rich experience’
UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt said “most universities feel that what they’re offering (athletes) is a very deep and rich experience” as opposed to an employer-employee relationship.
The latest investigation of UNC-CH’s academics fraud and its relationship to athletics is underway by former Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein, Folt said. Willingham has said Wainstein has reached out to her to talk about the situation, and Folt said she and Willingham have a meeting scheduled.
The chancellor has said she wants the investigation to go wherever the facts lead.
As model athletes were appearing before the trustees Thursday, websites such as Deadspin were skewering UNC-CH by posting a one-paragraph paper on civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks that appears to be largely lifted from Parks’ autobiography. The paper had been held up by Willingham in one of the TV segments, and she said it had been done by an unnamed UNC-CH athlete in an African studies class. She said the student received an A- for the class, which did meet and had other assignments.
Earlier this week, a UNC-CH spokesman had said that the TV reports were merely a rehash of old news about the long-running scandal. Yet the former athletes revealed that not only were they steered to no-show classes, but their entire course schedules and majors were picked by their advisers.
Trustee Chuck Duckett, who was a manager for the men’s basketball team when he was a student, asked the athletes at Thursday’s meeting point blank whether they had had their freedom of study restricted by anyone at the university.
The athletes said no. “None of my academic advisers have pushed me one way or the other,” said Ryan Switzer, a sophomore wide receiver on the football team.
Switzer did say that when he first started at UNC-CH, he had plans to major in nursing, but the time demands of his sport meant that was impossible. He showed a slide of his schedule, with wide swaths colored in yellow to indicate football time, from weightlifting to team meetings to afternoon practice.
Such time demands aren’t for everyone, said Switzer, an exercise and sports science major.
“I’ve gotten so good at managing my time, I don’t keep a calendar,” he said. “It’s all in my head.”
Cunningham said scheduling is an important issue and one that he hopes to address.
“We only have 24 hours in a day – every one of us,” he said. “So you have to balance those priorities. I think that we should really take a hard look at time and see if there’s a better way to organize the day so that students can get a full educational experience.”
‘You’re in college now’
Kemmi Pettway, a walk-on linebacker on the football team, described a system called MAP, or “My Academic Plan,” which sets individualized study schedules for athletes who need it. The MAPs include guided study and sessions with tutors geared toward specific classes. Pettway said he had learned to become efficient in getting his work done in 50-minute sessions, and tutors are on hand to help correct mistakes.
“You’re in college now,” said the freshman, “so you have to be responsible for your own work.”
Two female athletes, a softball player and a gymnast, talked about other benefits that accompany the experience, including leadership training and community outreach.
The athletes were roundly applauded by trustees.
“Until you’ve walked in your shoes, nobody in this crowd realizes the amount of time and effort that goes into being a student-athlete at Carolina,” said Dwight Stone, a trustee and father of two former UNC-CH athletes. “We’ve taken some undeserved shots in the media.”
Added trustee Steve Lerner: “This board is 100 percent behind you.”
Cunningham said Thursday’s program was designed to get the athletes off the field and out of the gym and “talk to them as real students.”
“We have a variety of talent, academically, athletically and we try to encourage them to do the best that they can possibly do,” Cunningham said.
The athletic director did not answer questions about the claims made by former players in national TV interviews earlier in the week.
“I’m not sure which students you’re talking about,” he said, “but I think our students that we have, have done a terrific job.”