Should Roy Williams have known that his players were maintaining their academic eligibility by taking no-show paper classes? Wayne Walden, an academic counselor Williams brought with him to UNC from the University of Kansas, admitted knowing about the classes and steering basketball players into them. Williams said that Walden never told him about the sham courses, and Walden does not remember ever telling him.
Why didn’t Walden check with Williams to find out whether he approved of his players receiving academic credit for courses that were largely imaginary? Maybe Walden did not care what Williams thought about the no-show classes. This seems unlikely given their long history together. Williams has said repeatedly that he cares deeply about the education of his players. Why would Walden disregard the priorities of the coach to whom he owed his job?
Perhaps Walden believed that Williams did not really care how his players maintained their eligibility but also did not want to know how they did it. The law defines such a state of mind as “willful blindness,” where you consciously avoid discovering something that you believe is probably true. Willful blindness is punished the same as knowledge because you should not be able to escape responsibility by hiding from the truth.
Roy Williams would surely deny being willfully blind to academic fraud. He directed Walden to urge the players to take fewer independent studies, and that is what happened a few years after Williams arrived. If Walden believed that Williams just did not want to know the truth, is that at least partially Williams’ fault though? Did Williams give Walden the impression that he wanted the players to maintain their eligibility any way they could? Or was Walden simply a rogue employee whose actions could not have been anticipated?
What do UNC’s leaders expect of their coaches? Are a coach’s leadership responsibilities limited primarily to the practice and playing fields? Or is a coach responsible for setting an organizational tone that stops his staff from knowingly participating in widespread academic fraud? Is a coach an organizational leader like a CEO who is ultimately accountable for what happens on his or her watch?
Successful coaches in big college sports have come to enjoy enormous power. They are often treated like mini-CEOs (including earning CEO-like salaries). CEOs though are often held ultimately responsible for what they should know, not just for what they do know.
Coaches are often held ultimately responsible for their win-loss record. They lose their jobs if they lose too many games, no matter the cause. Shouldn’t we hold them equally accountable for ethical losses as well? Whoever writes the contract for the next sports coach UNC hires might want to keep this in mind.
Joseph E. Kennedy, a professor of law at UNC School of Law, teaches criminal law and criminal procedure.