Jonathan Weiler — of theESPNwatch — explains the Wainstein Report of the UNC scandal

Before I jump in, I want to note that one or more people I know are losing their jobs over this. I am not going to weigh in on whether they should or not. But it’s all pretty sobering.

Some thoughts:

1) the first conclusion in the 2012 Martin report, for which UNC paid a minimum of half a million dollars reads: “This was not an athletic scandal. Sadly, it was clearly an academic scandal; but an isolated one within this one department.”

That conclusion is now no longer credible (not that it ever was, but it stood, in some respects, as the university’s official line, until yesterday).

That’s a good thing.

2) the emphasis on the fact that a large number of non-athletes also took the paper classes serves as something of a red herring in analysis of this scandal. First, because there is simply no denying that the shadow curriculum was launched and sustained primarily to benefit athletes and second because the eventual substantial presence of non-athletes in the fake classes is not relevant to questions of athletic eligibility per NCAA rules. If you’re trying to grasp how corruption and denial persist at an institution, understanding the full scope of the scandal, *including* the large numbers of non-athletes who found their way into those classes, is important. But if you’re trying somehow to rationalize or explain away the indisputable fact that the system operated as a critical eligibility life line for athletes, especially in football and, until 2007 or so, basketball, save your breath.

Among the most damning elements of the Wainstein report was the revelation that counselors in Academic Support Programs for Student Athletes (ASPSA) put together a powerpoint presentation essentially warning of the impending disaster that would attend Debbie Crowder’s retirement in 2009.

Specifically, as reported by the News and Observer:

ASPSA football counseling staff explained (1) that the AFAM paper classes had played a large role in keeping under-prepared and/or unmotivated football player eligible to play and (2) that these classes no longer existed. To emphasize those points, the counselors used the following slide in their presentation to the football coaches:

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This particularly damning revelation would, one presumes, be of interest to the NCAA in its ongoing investigation. Remember that the NCAA has punished schools in the past for academic fraud that bore on player eligibility, notably stripping Florida State and Bobby Bowden of all wins in 2006 and 2007, after major academic violations were uncovered there.

Whether the NCAA ought to have the authority to monitor academic processes and procedures and whether there is utility in expunging wins from records years after the fact are matters for debate. But the precedent appears relevant and the Wainstein report would seem to have provided plenty of fodder for applying that precedent in this case.

3) Much of the reporting since yesterday has focused on Roy Williams. Specifically, Williams has been characterized as having expressed “concern” about how many of his players were majoring in AFAM. He also apparently preferred that his players take traditional lecture-style classes, rather than independent studies. His anxiety about the situation, according to the Wainstein report, resulted in the basketball program weaning itself off of paper classes by 2007 or 2008. By contrast, football continued to exploit the shadow curriculum until it was snuffed out in 2011.

These facts have led numerous commentators – and many relieved fans – to conclude that Williams was something of a stand up guy in all this. But the Wainstein report itself is not quite as forgiving as this narrative suggests. First, according to data compiled by Wainstein, here the numbers of player enrollments in paper classes, by coaching era at UNC:

“During the Dean Smith era (1961-1997), there were 54  basketball player enrollments in AFAM independent studies. In the three years of Coach Bill Guthridge’s tenure (1997-2000), there were 17 basketball enrollments in paper classes. There were  42 enrollments in paper classes under Coach Matt Doherty (2000-2003) and 167 under Coach Roy Williams (2003-present).”

If, as Wainstein reports, the basketball program essentially stopped allowing players to use paper classes by 2008, those 167 enrollments were mostly compiled in the first five or so years of Williams’ tenure at Chapel Hill. This would, of course, include the 2005 championship team, which has been widely reported to have exploited the paper class system to the hilt. How proud should Williams and his defenders be of this record?

This raises a second area in which the report actually undercuts the pro-Williams narrative. In June, Rashad McCants, one of the stars of the 2005 championship team, told ESPN that when he was a student at UNC, his academic career was essentially a joke. He took many paper classes, tutors wrote his and other teammates’ papers and the only priority for his “education” at UNC was to keep him academically eligible. When asked whether Williams knew about the paper class system, McCants said, in essence, yes, of course, he had to know.

Williams angrily refuted that charge and the university assembled many of his former players to back him up in an interview with Jay Bilas shortly after McCants made his allegations.

As I explained at the time, Williams’ insistence since the beginning of this year that the academic side of his players’ college experience is “not my world” and that he essentially knows nothing of what they do academically was implausible. It both contradicted fundamentally statements Williams has made in the past and is obviously at odds with what he undoubtedly tells parents when he’s recruiting their kids.

The report makes clear that Williams was aware of his players’ schedules, the types of classes they were taking and, at least in broad terms, the nature of the classes they were taking. Had he not been, how could he have been so concerned about their clustering in AFAM? How could he have directed his staff to steer them away from independent study style classes to traditional lecture classes? Williams told Wainstein that he knew McCants’ schedule in his final semester at UNC, the spring of 2005, included several AFAM courses. That doesn’t prove that Williams knew they were all paper classes. And Wainstein does conclude that Coach Williams didn’t know that the paper classes themselves were as fraudulent as they’ve been revealed to be. Williams’ handpicked academic coordinator, Wayne Walden, who followed the coach from Kansas to UNC in 2003, did acknowledge awareness of the depth of the improprieties in those classes. But when Wainstein asked him whether he informed Coach Williams, Walden told Wainstein he couldn’t recall having done so.

While these facts let Williams off the hook of the more serious charges, they also demonstrate clearly that he was being untruthful when he said earlier this year that he was essentially in the dark on academic matters.

4) So, what now? The university has spent more than three years and countless hours investigating allegations, convening committees, drawing up new policies, implementing new processes and procedures, reforming its admissions processes and more. All of this has been done to ensure that a school with rigorous academic standards can continue to maintain an elite athletics program, including in the revenue-generating giants – football and men’s basketball. And to do so while ensuring that every student it admits has a real opportunity to receive a high quality college education.

Can this be done? Should it be a goal? Or is it time to give up the ghost and acknowledge that big time sports on college campuses will always tend to create pressures and conflicts of interest that make corruption and scandal likely, if not inevitable?

I know that last question in particular sounds rhetorical, but actually it’s not. My personal preference is that we acknowledge the reality that big time collegiate athletics is a financial behemoth, that the primary goal of bringing elite athletes in the profit sports is to fuel that behemoth and that remuneration should accord with that fact. If athletes have the desire and motivation to take advantage of the educational opportunities that a university affords while playing for that school – fantastic. If not, they don’t have to. The academic preparedness of athletes varies dramatically. Many are ready, willing and able to succeed in the classroom. Others aren’t. If some of the latter want to try, the university should make available to them the resources necessary for them to give it a go. But it wouldn’t require them to take a full load while they are still struggling to master the basic functions necessary to succeed in college. And maintaining academic eligibility wouldn’t be the entry visa necessary to get on the field.

Is this a perfect solution? No. That’s why I mean it when I say that the question above is not rhetorical. Very far from it. It raises its own very serious questions. The scandal at UNC might never have happened, certainly not for the length of time and in the form it did, were it not for the action of several key individuals. But the institutional pressure that big-time athletics exerts puts all institutions of higher education in compromising circumstances. That real people, some with understandable and even sympathetic motives, were central to the scandal in Chapel Hill should not be allowed to obscure the larger dilemma.

– Jonathan Weiler

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