UNC scandal is part of senator’s report, panel on academic fraud in college sports

UNC-Chapel Hill’s long-running academic-athletic scandal makes an appearance on Capitol Hill Thursday as part of a U.S. senator’s report and panel discussion on academic fraud in college sports.

The report is the second chapter in Sen. Chris Murphy’s examination of college sports, called Madness, Inc. Accompanying the release is a panel discussion that includes Mary Willingham, the former learning specialist at UNC who blew the whistle on sham “paper” classes that had no professor to The News & Observer eight years ago.

Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said Wednesday in an interview with The News & Observer that athletes in big-money college sports programs are being exploited. He calls it a civil rights issue.

“This is a $14 billion industry in which students, who are largely African American, are working for virtually no compensation making money for coaches, athletic directors and sports industry CEOs who are largely white,” Murphy said. “And the students are told they should be happy with their scholarship and stop asking for anything more. That’s ridiculous.”

His first chapter spoke to the compensation issue, which is being battled in federal courts. The UNC scandal draws attention to whether schools are providing true educational opportunities. Murphy’s report finds that’s often not happening.

“The lack of academic integrity across college sports may be the most insidious piece of a broken system,” the report said.

“The only significant form of compensation many athletes will receive from their efforts is a scholarship. These scholarships are, of course, very valuable, and at every chance, the NCAA claims these scholarships are more than enough to compensate athletes for the full-time hours they devote to their sports. Yet, the NCAA and colleges look the other way as athletic programs – especially in revenue-generating sports – routinely defraud athletes of the tremendous value those scholarships hold.”

Questions of academic integrity also have surfaced at the Triangle’s other major college sports programs. Duke has long had a sociology degree that athletes have used to graduate earlier than the typical four years, raising doubts about academic rigor.

N.C. State last year, in response to an N&O public records request, released a 2014 report on its academic support program for athletes that showed 10 tutors or mentors had been dismissed over a two-year period. Three tutors or mentors had improperly socialized with athletes, while the others had provided too much academic assistance such as providing personal ideas for an athlete’s paper.

‘Keep athletes eligible’

Murphy’s report draws heavily on news articles and academic research regarding academic issues in college sports. It includes an athlete from Kansas State who said advisers steered him away from a preferred major to a less demanding one, criticism of the NCAA’s athlete graduation rates that are inflated because they don’t account for 15,000 students who had transferred to other schools, and academic fraud at Syracuse University and UNC.

The NCAA punished Syracuse University, which had already self-imposed a one-year tournament ban, with vacated wins and a suspension for men’s basketball coach Jim Boeheim. The NCAA did not issue sanctions against UNC. While the NCAA’s infractions committee did not dispute that the classes at UNC helped keep athletes eligible, it said it couldn’t punish UNC because non-athletes were allowed into the classes, and the university claimed they were legitimate during the time they were offered.

The NCAA gives universities the right to identify what constitutes academic fraud on their campuses. Critics say that gives schools license to cheat. The NCAA is now discussing reforms.

Murphy’s report views the UNC scandal as athletics driven, with Burgess McSwain, the academic adviser for men’s basketball, working with Julius Nyang’oro, the chairman of the African and Afro-American Studies department, and Deborah Crowder, his administrative assistant, to create the ‘paper’ classes in 1993. McSwain died in 2004, while Crowder retired in 2009 and Nyang’oro was forced into retirement in 2012.

“The results of the ‘paper classes’ prove their singular intent was to keep athletes eligible and ensure they could focus entirely on athletics,” Murphy’s report said. “Between 1999 and 2011, about 170 athletes would have seen their semester GPAs drop below the 2.0 eligibility threshold at least once if not for the ‘paper classes.’”

The most detailed investigation into the scandal, led by Kenneth Wainstein, a former federal prosecutor, found that Crowder initially created independent studies that had no professor after pressure from unidentified academic advisers for athletes.

She provided the assignments and graded the papers, offering As and Bs so long as the papers were the appropriate length. She admitted she barely read the work.

In 1999, Crowder also began offering classes that were billed as lecture-style, but also did not meet and had no professor. When she retired in 2009, Nyang’oro continued the classes after receiving requests from an academic advisor for the football team.

All told, Wainstein’s report found more than 3,100 students took at least one of the sham classes, estimating that slightly less than half of those who took the sham classes were athletes. Athletes make up four percent of the student body. Crowder later denied specifically trying to help athletes when NCAA investigators interviewed her and in her testimony at the infractions hearing.

‘Easy classes on every campus’

Thursday’s panel discussion marks the second time Willingham has gone to Capitol Hill to talk about the lack of academic integrity in college sports. Willingham left UNC in 2014 and now works as a teacher for the KIPP charter school program in Chicago.

She said she will talk Thursday about the UNC scandal in her presentation, as well as her belief that the NCAA is a cartel too interested in making money for itself and its members to ensure athletes receive the same educational opportunities non-athletes have.

“I really want to try to get the message out there one more time that until we disconnect academic eligibility from college sports we’re always going to have fraud, and so many people will be complicit,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “It doesn’t necessarily mean they are bad people. It just means we’ve lost our sense of conscientiousness in this country.”

Some in UNC’s camp continue to say the classes were not fraudulent. Two weeks ago, Matt Doherty, a former UNC basketball player who coached the Tar Heels from 2000 to 2003, said on a WFNZ radio show that they were easy classes that are common among all universities. But his description of how he thought they came to be pointed to the issue Murphy is raising.

“I think that happened internally, where there was an academic adviser who befriended somebody in the African-American studies program and wanted to make sure that she didn’t disappoint – probably Coach (Dean) Smith and Coach (Bill) Guthridge – that their players would stay academically eligible and so they took some easy classes,” Doherty said on the show.

Doherty, who had made several unpopular personnel moves in the program, told Wainstein that Smith and Guthridge wanted him to leave alone the players’ academic support system that McSwain ran. Doherty did, not knowing what Crowder and McSwain were doing.

In an interview with the N&O Wednesday, Doherty said he supported UNC’s position on the classes, insisting “there are easy classes on every campus.”

Murphy said the NCAA and member schools need to step up academic accountability with more transparency on athletes’ academics and more reporting on how they fare economically when they leave. Schools can’t escape serious punishment when they cheat athletes of their educational opportunities.

He said he isn’t looking to file legislation to try to force those changes, but he thinks his colleagues on both sides of the aisle are paying attention.

“There’s more interest than you would think in the Senate,” he said.

The panel discussion at 12:30 p.m. Thursday will be live streamed from Murphy’s Facebook page at

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Dan Kane began working for The News & Observer in 1997. He covered local government, higher education and the state legislature before joining the investigative team in 2009.