During the season that the UNC men’s basketball team made its run to the 2005 NCAA championship, its players accounted for 35 enrollments in classes that didn’t meet and yielded easy, high grades awarded by the architect of the university’s academic scandal.
The classes, some advertised as lectures but that never met and others listed as independent studies, were supervised by Deborah Crowder, a manager in African and Afro-American studies who a report from former U.S. Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein says graded required end-of-semester work leniently as part of a “paper class” scheme to keep athletes eligible. Crowder was not a professor and admitted to investigators that she assigned grades without reading the papers.
Of the 35 bogus class enrollments, nine came during the fall semester of 2004, when eligibility for the spring was determined. Twenty-six were during the spring semester, when the season climaxed with a victory over Illinois in St. Louis.
One of the basketball players, Rashad McCants, had previously told ESPN he took nothing but paper classes in the spring 2005 semester. His transcript showed he was in three independent studies plus one lecture class that had no instruction. He received straight A-minuses, making the dean’s list.
The N&O reported in June that five members of the championship team, including four key players, had relied heavily on the paper classes: 52 enrollments during their time at UNC. The Wainstein documents, however, have more detail and show a heavy concentration during the spring semester of 2005, when the team was driving toward a national title.
That semester alone raises questions about whether the team enjoyed a competitive advantage, simply because players didn’t have to attend many classes and were guaranteed high grades. At least five players took three bogus classes each, the Wainstein documents show.
In the preceding semester, fall 2004, the team accounted for nine enrollments in five bogus classes, including one with four players attending. Three players took at least one independent study, the records show.
At least half of the 2,500 independent studies generated by the department over the life of the scandal had no instructor and were created by Crowder, the Wainstein report found.
The new information is likely to draw scrutiny from the NCAA, which reopened its investigation this summer, shortly after ESPN and The N&O reported the heavy involvement in paper classes by the basketball team.
UNC Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham has said the NCAA is reviewing athlete transcripts as part of its investigation.
The Wainstein documents also reveal a friendly relationship between Crowder and Wayne Walden, coach Roy Williams’ hand-picked academic counselor for the basketball team.
They show the two working together to get players into the classes and Walden providing tickets and other team freebies to Crowder.
Walden told investigators he was aware that Crowder was grading the papers, but he said he can’t recall telling Williams.
Paper classes packed
The documents are among roughly 1,100 pages of supporting material released along with the 131-page report that UNC made public Oct. 22.
They illustrate the depths of an 18-year scandal that experts say is the biggest academic fraud in college athletics. Nearly half of the 3,100 students in the classes were athletes, and the report cites pressure from the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes as a driver behind the classes.
The Wainstein report does not identify which athletes took how many paper classes, nor does it break out the number of athletes by sport who took them each semester. Wainstein said he was prohibited from releasing that information by the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a law that universities have repeatedly used to shield most education records.
But the report does show the number of enrollments by class and by semester for the three sports that used them the most: football, and men’s and women’s basketball. For a men’s basketball team that typically includes about 15 players a year, the numbers are substantial.
In the 18 years of paper classes, men’s basketball players accounted for 363 enrollments, an average of 20 enrollments per year.
The football team accounted for 1,377 enrollments during that period, but the football team has roughly nine times the number of athletes.
The Wainstein report shows that from 2000 through 2007, five or more basketball players were enrolled in each of 16 lecture-style classes that had been quietly converted into no-show classes. Twelve of them took place after Williams arrived at UNC in 2003 to coach the team.
Basketball players continued to enroll in sizable numbers until the spring 2008 semester. From there, the enrollments slowed to no more than five a semester.
Williams’ changing story
The N&O’s reporting revealed the scandal in 2011, but Williams, for a long time, provided little detail as to what he knew about the classes. Numerous times he said he was proud of the academic experience his players received.
“Our track record is pretty doggone good,” Williams told a Charlotte radio station on Aug. 15, 2012. “And our track record has been pretty doggone good for 15 years at Kansas, nine years at North Carolina. And we know how much we emphasize the academic side in the basketball office. We know what our guys are majoring in. We know – every day we’re in touch with those kids. So it’s something, again, that I’m very proud of.”
Four months later, at a press conference, an N&O reporter asked Williams why his players had stopped taking AFAM paper classes by the start of the fall 2009 semester. Was it because Crowder had retired, or did someone in the program notice something wrong?
Williams responded: “You say we either did something, or we didn’t do something. Maybe guys, girls, just decided not to take certain classes.”
The athletic department later adopted that same position, with spokesman Steve Kirschner saying in a statement on Nov. 16, 2012: “Different players have different interests.”
When Wainstein’s report came out, it included new information from Williams that provided a possible explanation why his players weren’t enrolling in AFAM classes.
He told Wainstein’s investigators that shortly after he arrived at UNC, he was concerned that so many of his athletes were majoring in AFAM; the 2005 team alone had 10 of 15 players with that major. He said he told one of his assistant coaches, Joe Holladay, to make sure they weren’t being steered to the major.
The report also said Williams knew McCants took “three or four” independent study courses in the spring 2005 semester. McCants took three that were listed as an independent study. The fourth was identified as AFAM 65, Topics in Afro-American Studies. That, too, was a paper class. In the Wainstein report, Williams said he told Holladay to emphasize that his players should be in lecture classes instead of independent study.
After the Wainstein report came out, Williams said in two news conferences that he was concerned about his players clustering in a major. Records show they continued to cluster in another popular major, Communications, while many others were listed as undeclared.
Kirschner said in an email that Williams would not be made available for an interview. Kirschner stood by his November 2012 statement.
UNC spokesman Joel Curran said Friday that the university would not respond to questions until the NCAA investigation is completed.
Crowder helps Walden
Wayne Walden was the academic counselor for the basketball program when the team won the 2005 championship and another in 2009. Williams brought him from Kansas in 2003, where he held a similar position.
Walden told Wainstein he knew students enrolled in the AFAM classes had no contact with faculty, and he thought Crowder “probably was doing some of the grading.”
But he said he saw nothing wrong with the classes because nonathletes also were enrolled. He said he also didn’t recall telling Williams or Holladay.
Walden left UNC in 2009, about the same time Crowder retired. He married and moved to Texas to work for a health care company. In a short phone interview with The N&O in September 2011, Walden said he was unaware of any easy professors or easy classes within the AFAM department.
“No, I wouldn’t say there’s go-to classes or anything like that,” Walden said.
The correspondence between Walden and Crowder shows numerous efforts to set up athletes in “independent studies.” It is unclear how many of them are men’s basketball players; Walden also counseled athletes in volleyball, swimming and diving.
In one email, Crowder seemed to be taking care to not have too many athletes in any one class. She wrote that she could place an athlete in an independent study because “I have added several non-athletic persons ...”
In another, from Sept. 20, 2005, Walden was seeking an independent study for a student who struggled to learn. Crowder put him in a paper class despite his lacking an introductory course from the department.
“We have a student with some diagnosed learning disabilities and we are trying to help him with his reading and writing skills while also tutoring him in his current courses,” Walden wrote. “I sense that he is getting a little overwhelmed and wondered if there might be a course that you would recommend that he might still be able to add in order that he might drop one of his current courses.”
Crowder agreed to enroll the student, even as she noted that “(w)e are getting pressure from on-high to reduce the numbers of independent study type courses.”
The emails also show a tight relationship between Crowder and Walden. He offered her tickets to games, which she accepted, and he gave her team paraphernalia such as clothing, calendars and posters. Crowder told Walden in 2004 that his predecessor, Burgess McSwain, would drop off team calendars and posters for her to distribute.
They went, she wrote, to “some of the various and sundry people who helped keep these guys in school.”