Cheated: The Massive UNC Athletic Scandal Exposed

 

The subtitle you see above, referring to the long-awaited 2015 book by two UNC-Chapel Hill insiders, history professor Jay M. Smith and academic counselor Mary Willingham is mine, not theirs.  Their title is Cheated: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-Time College Sports.  Both the title and the subtitle are right on the mark.  The basic title has at least two meanings.  The authors show how that in the profit sports at the University of North Carolina, and to one degree or another, throughout the country, high school athletes who were promised a free college education in exchange for their revenue-generating services have been cheated.  They provided real entertainment to college sports fans for which they were given a fake education, a very bad deal for them, indeed.  At the same time the title refers to how, for at least 20 years, UNC won a lot games in basketball and football.  It cheated.  Many of the players that it put out on the court or the field were students in little more than name only.

 

Both forms of cheating represent challenges to the organization that is supposed to govern the behavior of its member schools, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), but the latter one does so in particular.  If the rules of the NCAA have any purpose at all it is to prevent any of its members from gaining a competitive advantage by cheating, which the authors show in great detail the University of North Carolina did to a greater degree and over a longer period of time than we have heretofore seen at any college anywhere.  On top of that, as the revelations began to ooze out the university, right up to its top administrators, demonstrated a shocking degree of bad faith by doing everything in its power simply to keep a lid on the scandal, continuing to cover up in a variety of ways.  Smith and Willingham say that the university has used a “rope-a-dope” technique with its stalling tactics, stringing the process out, but a more appropriate metaphor, I believe, would be the four corners.

 

The NCAA has already demonstrated that its heart is not in the right place by administering only the mildest sort of penalty to the UNC football program while trying very hard not to see the huge academic-athletic scandal in the form of numerous sham classes for athletes that was bubbling just beneath the surface.  Now they have been forced back to UNC by the revelations that Smith and Willingham detail in their book, and they have promised to issue a judgment in the spring of 2016.

 

The punishment had better be severe, such as forcing the university to give up at least one and possibly two of its national titles in basketball, reducing the number of scholarships it is permitted to give and prohibiting post-season competition in basketball and football for a number of years, or the NCAA will have no credibility left.   But it will be a very hard pill for a lot of people to take.  The University of North Carolina’s basketball program in particular has been the fair-haired boy of America’s sports/media complex for a long time and the March madness of the NCAA basketball tournament that UNC has been so much a part of has been a primary generator of revenue for that complex.  To give UNC the punishment they deserve will reveal the fetid swamp of corruption over which the NCAA has been presiding.  If they don’t, though, the NCAA will reveal to one and all that cheating pays and that the NCAA, itself, is corrupt to the core.

 

Anyone who is not a fan of American college sports who reads this book might think that the punishment I am suggesting would be appropriate actually falls very far short of being appropriate to the crime.  What took place in particular in the African and Afro-American studies (AFRI/AFAM) department in wholesale fashion under the direction of chairman Julius Nyang’oro for almost two decades, after all, was criminal fraud, pure and simple. Many members of UNC’s administration were accessories at the time or after the fact. There were some regular non-scholarship, non-athlete students who were awarded grades and credit hours for nothing more than the tuition they paid.  For the scholarship athletes, the bogus classes served as the education they were supposed to receive in return for the valuable services that they rendered.  Shouldn’t a lot of people be looking at possible jail sentences?

 

In a rhetorical flourish near the end, the authors squeeze just some of the misdeeds of Nyang’oro’s accomplices into a tight, potent capsule:

 

In Chapel Hill a faculty chair threw integrity to the winds in order to modify an official report she feared might “raise further NCAA issues,” a harried chancellor reacted to athletic scandal by proposing that athletic directors should henceforth handle all matters athletic, a long-respected faculty athletics representative worked with athletics officials to sell to a naēve former governor a false story about faculty negligence, senior associate deans omitted from their AFRI/AFAM curriculum review incriminating evidence of athletic wrong-doing of which they were fully cognizant, and individual faculty and administrators who had known for decades about the subversion of a department’s courses—and not just any department, but the department that had been created out of a desire to enhance the education of African American students—remained steadfastly quiet for four solid years, leaving a lone whistle-blower to twist in the wind.

 

In fact, the generally acknowledged primary perpetrator of the long-running phony-class operation, the Tanzanian native Nyang’oro, was charged with a crime, but the “obtaining property by false pretense” charge was later dropped by the local district attorney in exchange for Nyang’Oro’s full cooperation with the latest UNC in-house investigator of the mess, Kenneth Wainstein.  As we can gather from the Raleigh News and Observer’s conclusion to its report, what this development does is increase the pressure on the NCAA to implement meaningful punishment on the university itself for its cheating ways: 

 

Had [Orange County District Attorney Jim] Woodall prosecuted Nyang'oro, it was unlikely he would have faced prison time. Even so, the dismissal means Nyang'oro will avoid a trial that could have forced various UNC-CH personnel to the witness stand to explain what they knew about the suspect AFAM classes.

 

Burley Mitchell, a former N.C. Supreme Court justice and former member of the UNC Board of Governors, said Thursday that it would be "unheard of" to dismiss a felony charge in a case like Nyang'oro's without gaining something significant in return.

 

"You don't give up a felony charge against someone that, frankly, you can easily prove unless that person is giving you someone or something bigger," said Mitchell, a former district attorney in Wake County who holds an undergraduate degree from N.C. State and a law degree from UNC. "So that would be just a reasonable assumption and one probably I and most prosecutors would reach given this announcement."

Yes, the school’s accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges (SACS) put the university on probation this past June, but I don’t believe anyone really takes that group seriously.  Essentially, the hammer of punishment remains in the hands of the organization whose authority extends only to athletic matters, the NCAA. To those people who are not caught up in the American college sports phenomenon that might seem to be a very weak hammer, but it is not.  To get some idea of what a big deal it is, one need only turn to the almost worshipful Wikipedia page for UNC’s late basketball coach, Dean Smith:

 

During his tenure as head coach, North Carolina won two national championships and appeared in 11 Final Fours.

 

Smith was known for running a clean program and having a high graduation rate, with 96.6% of his athletes receiving their degrees. While at North Carolina, Smith helped promote desegregation by recruiting the university's first African-American scholarship basketball player, Charlie Scott, and pushing for equal treatment for African Americans by local businesses.

 

In February of 2013, long after the existence of the phony AFAM classes had become publicly known, President Barack Obama awarded Coach Smith the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  In 2015, three months after the publication of Cheated, we had this:

 

The United States Basketball Writers Association and the University of North Carolina jointly announced June 24 the creation of an award to honor the late Dean Smith, coaching legend and former Tar Heels basketball coach.

 

The Dean Smith Award will be presented annually by the USBWA to an individual in college basketball who embodies the spirit and values represented by Smith. Candidates for the award will include coaches and non-coaches, both male and female, from all divisions of the NCAA and NAIA.

 

Basketball at the University of North Carolina, and its reputation, is a very big deal, indeed, to a great number of people.

 

Fan Boys and Fan Girls (aka “Jock Sniffers”)

 

From the first chapter entitled “Paper-Class Central” to the last chapter, “Echoes across the Land,” a common thread that runs through the sacrifice of academic integrity on the altar of athletic glory at UNC and at other major universities that have gone astray is that the individuals in key administrative and faculty positions have also been big fans of the schools’ basketball or football teams, or both. *  Though a foreigner, Nyang’oro was bitten by the bug worse than most.  This telling paragraph is from that first chapter:

 

Nyang’oro also threw out the welcome mat for athletes.  In part this may have reflected his own enthusiasm for sports.  In his first years on the UNC campus, when he served as a postdoctoral fellow, he supplemented his salary by tutoring football players in the Academic Support Program; his keen interest in UNC athletics may have derived from his hands-on contact with athletes in need of extra help in the mid-1980s.  Certainly, by the time he joined the regular faculty, he made little effort to hide his enthusiasm.  In the fall of 1992, at an Indianapolis seminar on pedagogy that had attracted college teachers from all around the country, Nyang’oro playfully teased two faculty colleagues who had earned their PhDs from Duke University.  Sharing lunch before the keynote speech, he razzed them while passing on dramatic news.  “We got Stackhouse,” he told them with his characteristic chuckle.  He referred to high school basketball prodigy Jerry Stackhouse, who had been heavily recruited by UNC head coach Dean Smith and Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski.  Stackhouse had announced his intention to attend UNC the night before the seminar, and Nyang’oro, who followed the basketball recruiting wars closely, enjoyed celebrating this victory in the presence of Blue Devils fans.  Later, in 1993, Nyang’oro exchanged pleasantries with Dean Stephen Birdsall.  “As you continue to be swamped by much,” he ended his letter, “remember there is light at the end of the long dark tunnel: basketball season.  See you there.” In 2009 Nyang’oro would also “guest coach” for the football team, and his emails show a pattern of socializing with Athletic Department staff who were ready to supply tickets and special access to a favored professor.

 

The online forum of the UNC rival North Carolina State University known as Pack Pride, whose relentless digging into the UNC scandal has always been about two steps ahead of the newspapers, has given to such types the indelicate name of “jock sniffers.” Rising meteorically in the AFAM department to its chairmanship, Nyang’oro had at his side another quintessential person of the genre, “the one indispensable staff person in the AFRI/AFAM curriculum since her hiring in 1979,” Debby Crowder.  So close, was she, in fact, that she would enter into a romantic relationship with one of Dean Smith’s favorite former players, Warren Martin (whose playing time, in the view of this longtime player and former coach, exceeded his skills).  The die was cast for the academic fraud that would ensue.

 

Although the academic corruption at UNC that first came to light involved football players and the only punishment from the NCAA that has yet been forthcoming was a mild one for the football team, we see from Cheated that Nyang’oro and Crowder’s “Paper-Class Central” was designed for, and for the first few years served almost exclusively members of UNC’s vaunted basketball team.  Nyang’oro and Crowder were first and foremost basketball fans, and, as everyone who follows college sports knows, UNC is first and foremost a basketball school.  As we read Cheated we come to realize what that really means.  It doesn’t mean just above other sports, but above almost everything else.  As word got around and as UNC’s football ambitions rose, football players, women’s basketball players, lazy frat boys, and others looking for a good grade for virtually no work got in on the action.

 

No Time to Be Students

 

My own earlier brush with the American college sports juggernaut came with football and almost by coincidence at the University of North Carolina.  I was a teaching assistant there while in graduate school in economics from 1968 to 1972.  I never had any basketball players in the classes I taught, but in the spring of my third year I had six football players.  I have detailed that experience and the scandal surrounding the death by heat stroke of one of the members of the football team in “Confessions of a Football Fanatic,” posted in 2001.  The title refers to a speech I gave in 1976 at the college where I taught.  In the 2001 introduction I say, “…many of the disturbing things I speak of here have only gotten worse…” As it turns out, I didn’t know the half of it.

 

A big problem I noted then was that the time and energy demands upon the six players that I had in my class were simply too great for them to be students at the same time.  This was before competitive pressures had become so great that admissions standards had been essentially thrown to the wind, and before black athletes had become so dominant in basketball and football.  Of the six football players I had, I think the black one was the most capable student, and none of them struck me as unsuited for doing college work had they not been so heavily put upon by their football demands. 

 

I gather from Cheated that those days are long behind us.  Now, as a general rule, colleges with big-time sports programs are asking much less capable and/or much less prepared students to do much more.  Willingham, in particular, has seen first hand how these developments have played out as part of a small industry that has developed whose purpose is to keep the players academically eligible to play.  Smith and Willingham refer to what goes on as perpetuating the NCAA’s “myth of the student-athlete.”

 

In the old Soviet, Eastern European Communist system there was a saying, “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.” In the system that Smith and Willingham describe, a similar telling saying would be, “They pretend to pay us (with scholarships) and we pretend to be students.”  Unlike the malingerers under Communism, though, these pretend-students do work very hard, indeed, at what the money-and-glory-obsessed colleges brought them to their campuses to do, which is to be athletic entertainers.  Smith and Willingham call it “exploitation,” and I can’t think of a better word for it. 

 

It goes on all over the country as the authors detail in their concluding, “Echoes across the Land,” chapter, and it goes on at UNC with athletes steered to courses known to be easy and professors known to be particularly “sympathetic” to athletes, but Nyang’oro and Crowder took the business to a whole different level, to the level of out and out fraudulence.   

 

The Race Question

 

Reflecting upon the fact that the fraudulence occurred in the African and Afro-American Department under the direction of an African professor (and a white female assistant) and most of the students involved were African American, a number of abstract nouns come to my mind: “irony,” “hypocrisy,” “outrage,” and, yes, “racism.”

 

The reason that Nyang’oro got the job as chairman in the first place was that he was a black African.  Here is the key passage:

 

In the wake of [Sonya Haynes] Stone’s death and [Trudier] Harris’s departure, Nyang’oro stood as the lone remaining black faculty member based in the AFRI/AFAM curriculum.  The other members of the faculty were all capable people, but none had yet earned sufficient scholarly distinction to overcome the symbolic affront that white leadership of AFRI/AFAM would have represented at this sensitive point in the curriculum’s history.  One student reminded Dean [Gillian] Cell, in a 1989 editorial in the student newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel, that she had confirmed “our worst fears” when she appointed a white male—the economist [Robert] Gallman—as interim chair that year.

 

As things worked out, there are much worse things that the editorial writer might have feared.  With the mention of Gallman, this episode once again hits close to home.  The late Professor Gallman, who was an eminent scholar specializing in American economic history, was also the chairman of my dissertation committee and, from all I knew of him, a thoroughly honorable man with no hint of the jock sniffer about him.  Had he become the permanent chairman of the department I can’t imagine that this scandal would ever have happened. 

 

Gallman’s scholarly pursuits were also closer to the concerns of African American students than those of Nyang’oro.  The one semester I spent as a research as opposed to a teaching assistant, he had me digging up information related to the question of why slavery died out or was abolished in the North before the Civil War.  Nyang’oro, on the other hand, is a specialist on his native East Africa, a region that has about as much connection to the history and experience of native American black people as does that of the dark skinned natives of Australia, Melanesia, or the Indian sub-continent.  Of course, it’s something of a moot point when you don’t actually have to do anything in a course on the Swahili language or, say, the history of Kenya.

 

Smith and Willingham detect a form of subtle, 21st century racism in the way the perversion of academics persisted for so long in AFRI/AFAM:

 

There is a widespread belief at UNC, as at many universities, that it is acceptable to hand black athletes counterfeit educational credentials since real credentials will lie forever beyond their grasp.  At least they were given the “opportunity” to spend time on a college campus, goes the thinking.  (Self-satisfied and privileged whites tend to chalk up classroom shortcomings among black athletes to laziness, lack of drive, and “cultural” issues.)  These attitudes are insulting, offensive, and destructive, but the fact that they simmer just beneath the surface of polite university discourse helps explain both the institutional refusal to take AFRI/AFAM seriously and the long-term toleration of the department head’s solicitous care taking of other students (many but not all of whom were black).  Despite the excellence of so many of its faculty, the department was regarded by some as a cargo bay for students who had somehow to be “cranked through” the system.  The cranking through was the thing, since this helped not only athletes in need of eligibility, but also university graduation rates and minority retention rates that factored into national rankings.  The intellectual content or caliber of the instruction provided in AFRI/AFAM (much of it very high indeed) was regarded with indifference.  Only the numbers mattered; quality control was completely ignored.

 

The Way Forward

 

What with the continuing, and even growing pressure on coaches in the profit sports to win, the huge and growing amount of money involved, and with academic abilities and interests distributed differently in the population from athletic abilities and interests, one can expect the sort of academic corruption that has taken place at UNC to pop up at one place or another on an almost continuous basis.  We are not surprised when a major league baseball pitcher is typically a very poor hitter.  He made it to the major leagues because of his ability to pitch, not hit.  Similarly, the more competitive pressures cause “students” to be admitted into college based upon their athletic prowess, we should not be surprised that a substantial proportion of them can’t cut the mustard academically.  What we have now is really just a system of organized hypocrisy that contributes to the fame and fortune of a select few individuals, entertains millions, and basically screws over generations of young males, most of whom these days happen to be black.

 

Smith and Willingham see two possible paths for fixing this system.  One is that envisioned by the New York lawyer Jeffrey Kessler in which the profit sports are only loosely affiliated with the colleges and universities while they are treated generally like the commercial operations that they are.  The athletes are paid at fair market value for their services and if they want to receive some of their payment in kind, preparing themselves for a future beyond athletics by taking courses as time permits at their affiliated educational institution, they can do so, but they are not forced to do so and whether or not they cut the mustard in the classroom would be irrelevant to their athletic contract.

 

The other possible better future that Smith and Willingham envision is one in which the academic authorities regain ascendancy over the athletic ones, regain their backbones, and end the hypocrisy.  If they’re going to continue to lower their admission standards in pursuit of athletic glory, they must honestly acknowledge their obligations to offer remedial education to bring their athletes up to the point that they can actually benefit from the education that the college has to offer.

 

I consider this second alternative as wholly quixotic, sort of like expecting National League baseball teams to pour more resources into making better hitters of their pitchers.  It’s not going to happen.  Furthermore, it fails to come to grips with the problem that I saw before admission standards had been lowered so much.  The players simply don’t have the time and energy to be proper students.  To my mind, anyone interested in an end to hypocrisy and exploitation in big-time college sports should be rooting for Jeffrey Kessler to crush the NCAA cartel in court.

 

Dean Smith Missing

 

Cheated is not without its shortcomings.  One could think that he’s reading the book carefully and still not see anything in it that might undermine the impression left on the Wikipedia page that coach Dean Smith was a paragon of virtue “known for running a clean program.” You have to notice it yourself because the authors fail to call your attention to the fact, but when Nyang’oro and Crowder got their paper class system up and running and made it available almost exclusively to basketball players, the head basketball coach was Dean Smith.  It continued for those first few years and beyond his retirement at the end of the 1996-97 season.  His second and last championship team was at the end of the 1992-93 season. 

 

This little bombshell is not in Cheated; it’s in an online publication for North Carolina State partisans called StateFansNation, and it refers to the starting lineup of that team:

 

The curriculum majors/minors for that group based on our best collected information and belief are as follows:

 

[George]
Lynch (Sr): African American Studies


[Brian] Reese (Jr): Communications (minor in African American Studies)


[Donald] Williams (So): African American Studies


[Derrick] Phelps (Jr): African American Studies


[Eric] Montross (Jr): Communications

 

It seems worth pointing out that in the first year a curriculum for African American Studies existed at UNC (1992) 4 of 5 members of the starting lineup of the National Championship Basketball team immediately majored/minored in the brand new curriculum with Dr. Nyang’oro at the helm. In just one year, an almost entire team happened to migrate to one particular, and brand new, curriculum?

 

Amazing.

 

Perhaps even more amazing is that some of these players were juniors and seniors when the curriculum was created! 

 

That article, which went up in 2012, then goes on to ask the reasonable question: Was this curriculum created for the express purpose of benefitting the basketball team?  Smith and Willingham show that that was not the case, but they confirm that the paper-class abuses initially benefitted the basketball team almost exclusively.

 

More possibly useful information can be found at the Wikipedia page for the basketball coach of Smith’s archrival at Duke University, Mike Krzyzewski.  We see there that in the two years previous to that UNC national championship, Duke had won the national championship the previous two years, in 1991 and 1992, had been the national runner-up in 1990, and had reached the Final Four each of the two years before that.  Smith had won only that one national championship in 1982 when Michael Jordan was a freshman and two other players who had illustrious NBA careers, Sam Perkins, and James Worthy were a sophomore and a junior respectively, and he had taken his team to only one Final Four since then (Debby Crowder’s future lover, Warren Martin, was also a sophomore on that team).  Something had to be done. 

 

Dean Smith was known as a fierce competitor who would do almost anything to win.  One of those things was the intimidation of referees; the sportscasters even came up with a euphemistic new expression for it, “working the officials.” Smith did it almost from the opening buzzer.  In a 1975 ACC tournament game the favored Tar Heels trailed Wake Forest by eight points with only fifty seconds left to play, but in the next half minute they managed to cut the lead to four.  From the UNC base line Wake Forest threw a floor-length pass that led to a lay-up and a virtually insurmountable six-point lead with less than half a minute remaining.  Smith must be given credit for fast thinking, because he immediately raised a protest that the ball had glanced off the overhead scoreboard clock (technically out of bounds) and therefore the ball should belong to UNC under its own basket where the throw had originated, and the Wake Forest score should be taken off the scoreboard.  No one else had seen the magic collision of the ball with the scoreboard clock, but the official trusted Smith’s “superior” eyesight and conceded the point.  UNC went on to tie the game just before the final buzzer and to win in overtime.

 

Smith was always looking for an angle to gain an advantage, and one would have to admit that offering courses that required no work and guaranteed a good grade gave UNC a big advantage over its rivals.  The AFRI/AFAM paper classes might not have been Smith’s idea, but it is very difficult to believe that he knew nothing about them.

 

Jay Smith and Mary Willingham do their readers a disservice by not reminding them that the fraudulent class regime at UNC began on Dean Smith’s watch.  Perhaps they felt that this was one sacred cow that they had better not touch.

 

At this point I must share a witticism that a clever and perspicacious wag put up on the Pack Pride board.  I have embellished it with a middle line in order to turn it into one of my Twitter Trifles:

 

The Carolina Way,

The honest way,

Dean’s myth.

 

Press Gets a Pass

 

One would also get the impression from Cheated that the press have been the good guys in the UNC mess and in several other athletic scandals that have been uncovered around the country.  The fact of the matter is that the press, led by the sports journalists, has been a primary enabler of the corruption.  College football and basketball are big parts of their livelihoods and for the most part they adopt a cheerleader, see-no-evil approach.  Dan Kane, at the Raleigh News and Observer deserves the credit that Smith and Willingham give him, but he is not a regular sports reporter and unlike the sports staff members of many of the newspapers around the Tar Heel State, he is not a product of the UNC School of Journalism.  Neither is Duke graduate Jay Bilas at ESPN or fellow Dukie John Feinstein, who covers the college sports beat for The Washington Post, but that has not prevented them from acting almost like they are on the UNC payroll.  Among other things, Bilas gave a softball interview to current UNC coach and Dean Smith protégé Roy Williams soon after Rashad McCants’s revelations of his own participation in the paper-class scheme when he was a player on Williams’s national championship team.  Feinstein, to my knowledge, has not yet written the first thing about the long running UNC scandal and the entire Washington Post has been almost as bad.  Feinstein even originated the idea of the Dean Smith Award this year.

 

With those small reservations, I would highly recommend this well written and researched exposé of the biggest athletic/academic scandal that the country has yet seen by two very knowledgeable and courageous insiders.  I certainly hope that all the responsible authorities at the NCAA read it as well as do those members of Congress who oversee the NCAA cartel.

 

* Even the “naēve former governor,” Jim Martin, who presided over a wholly unsatisfactory examination of the scandal, concluding that it was really an “academic” and not an “athletic” matter, might well merit the “fan boy” appellation.  I know from having played two-on-two against him in the gym at Davidson College when I was a student and he was a young chemistry professor that he’s a decent basketball player, and his interest in the sport could well have caused him to get caught up in Tar Heel basketball fandom (not to mention how he had learned pandering as a politician).  While a grad student at UNC even I was seduced a bit by the Tar Heel mystique, but outgrew it soon enough.

 

David Martin

January 7, 2016

 

 

 

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