Garner: Opinion

Column: Leave it to a preacher

Johnny Whitfield, columntst The Eastern Wake News and the Garner-Cleveland Record.
Johnny Whitfield, columntst The Eastern Wake News and the Garner-Cleveland Record.

I’ll make an admission here that I don’t often reveal publicly.

Growing up, I was a Tar Heel fan in the biggest way. That might come as a big surprise to those who know how much I bleed red and white today. But as a child, I cheered wildly for the Tar Heels, I worshiped the likes of Mitch Kupchak, John Kuester, Tommy LaGarde and Walter Davis.

I wept alongside Mike O’Koren when Carolina lost the national championship to Al McGuire and his Marquette Warriors.

All that background is intended to ward off the inevitable complaints that this column is little more than Tar Heel bashing.

Like many, I watched Sunday’s memorial to the late Dean Smith from afar, choosing to watch the broadcast aired on The News & Observer’s website.

Many people have said over the past few weeks since his death that Smith ran the program with an eye toward honesty, that he was intent on winning the right way.

But it was Smith’s pastor, The Rev. Robert Seymour, who addressed the elephant in nearly every Carolina living room around the state.

“My friends, we honor Dean Smith when we support the civil rights for every human being. We honor his memory by never allowing athletics to eclipse academics.”

Gauntlet thrown.

The University of North Carolina is, of course, embroiled in an athletic and academic scandal of epic proportions. There have been allegations of no-show classes and easy grades handed out to athletes by a star-struck faculty and staff, aided by coaches who conveniently absolved themselves of responsibility. The scandal has brought down the chancellor, the athletics director and the football coach.

If that sounds familiar, well, that’s because it is. I remember as a student at N.C. State when Chancellor Bruce Poulton resigned in the midst of a scandal involving basketball coach and athletics director Jim Valvano and his team. Valvano soon gave up the administrative job and later lost his position as a coach, despite having led the school to a national championship.

Athletic scandals have marred local sports scenes dating back to the old Dixie Classic in which a point-shaving scandal led then UNC system president William Friday to bring the curtain down on a popular basketball event.

But on Sunday, it took a preacher to address what many in the UNC leadership have, frankly, failed to admit. Athletics at Carolina have eclipsed the academic mission at the University of North Carolina.

That should never be the case. Not at Carolina. Not at State. Not at Duke or East Carolina, UNC-Pembroke or Appalachian State. The late Dean Smith could infuriate his opponents with his gamesmanship. But he didn’t let players slide on the real reason they were at school. As cool as the basketball was, he intended to make sure they went to class, did their schoolwork and met all their obligations. That he won on the court was an added bonus.

It took a preacher on a Sunday to say what needed to be said. Here’s hoping the folks at UNC heard him. And, if some folks at other institutions of higher learning heard him, too, well all the better.