New documentary takes on college sports, including UNC scandal

Last night a documentary that’s getting a lot of national buzz made its debut on the EPIX pay channel. It’s called “Schooled: The Price of College Sports.”

Some big names appear in it, including NBC Sports Anchor Bob Costas, ESPN commentator (and former Duke basketball star) Jay Bilas, and sportswriter Frank Deford.

I’m in it too, because of my reporting on the UNC-Chapel Hill academic scandal.

Schooled takes its cues from an influential article Taylor Branch, a Pulitzer-winning author and civil rights historian, wrote for The Atlantic two years ago. (Branch is a co-producer of the documentary.) That article, “The Shame of College Sports,” made the argument that college football and basketball players in the nation’s top programs are little more than indentured servants, while coaches get rich.

Directors also interviewed at length Mary Willingham, the former learning specialist for student athletes who disclosed to me the practice of paper classes that are at the heart of the scandal. She told me – and numerous records I later obtained confirmed this – that UNC’s Academic Support Program for Student Athletes was steering athletes to lecture-style classes that never met. Those classes, all within the African and Afro-American Studies department, required only a term paper turned in at the end, and nearly all received good to excellent grades.

The documentary has drawn plenty of praise. It’s on target as far as the big picture with the academic fraud at UNC, but it misses the mark on a couple of points.

I’m in the documentary talking about how the UNC men’s basketball team took 15 independent studies classes in 2005, a year in which the team was national champion. Those classes are suspect because the African studies department was handing out so many independent studies that there was little evidence of adequate supervision. And when an independent study scandal emerged in 2006 at Auburn University, causing faculty to ask if there were any problems here, men’s basketball players stopped taking them.

But the documentary makers compressed parts of the interview in such a way that I’m in the film calling these independent studies “paper classes.” I’ve been careful to use that term to describe classes that were supposed to include lectures, but had been quietly turned into independent studies. There are legitimate classes that were intended from the start to be independent studies, and others sometimes refer to them that way.

While emails show an academic counselor did ask Julius Nyang’oro – the African studies chairman at the scandal’s center – to repeat a paper class (an intermediate-level Swahili language class), I didn’t recall any evidence of memorabilia being offered as the film says, just drinks and tickets to football games.

Former Gov. Jim Martin and the Baker Tilly consulting firm found evidence the paper classes went back to 1994. That came after our stories showed the classes went at least as far back as the late 1990s. The PackPride folks helped break that revelation by proving that a “mock” transcript I had found on UNC’s website actually belonged to football star Julius Peppers, who also played basketball.

Viewers can see Schooled at by signing up for a free two-week trial.

Or they can attend a showing of the documentary at 7 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 24, at UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. A panel discussion follows. The panel includes Branch, producer Andrew Muscato, Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham, former N.C. Supreme Court justice Bob Orr, Richard Southall of UNC’s College Sports Research Institute, former UNC and NFL football player Dwight Hollier, and me.