Revisiting the UNC Paper Class Scandal

What ever happened with that UNC scandal where football and basketball players had fake classes?

That’s a question I ask myself every time I see a different school get punished by the NCAA for a seemingly less serious offense.

You may recall back in 2014 a woman from the University of North Carolina going on CNN, Bloomberg, Outside the Lines and Real Sports aledging that there were fake classes that had been created for UNC football and basketball players, that they neither had to go to class nor do any work, that many of them were functionally illiterate and that student-athletes’ grades were being changed to keep them eligible.

For the next three years, it felt like the story totally vanished while the NCAA investigated. Then, last year, the NCAA concluded their investigation and announced there would be no penalties. This was a blip in the news cycle, even in sports media, and like that the story was gone.

So this week, I’d decided I wanted to revisit the story, dig past the headlines and figure out how a scandal that appeared to be show college athletics at its most corrupt resulted in no punishment.

 

While the “Paper Class Scandal” did not begin to unfold until late 2011, it’s important for background to start this story back in 2010 with a different UNC athletics scandal. This was more of what I think of as a garden-variety NCAA scandal, involving improper benefits for football players. Basically, a bunch of agents were hosting parties for players at nightclubs and a tutor was writing papers for football players. While this may not seem like all that big a deal and involves the type of things many people assume happen everywhere, the fallout was swift and substantial. In total, 11 players from the team were suspended including 3 who were kicked off permanently. Head football coach Butch Davis and athletic Dick Baddour resigned. Additionally, the NCAA punished UNC with a ban from the 2012 postseason and the reduction of 15 scholarships. They were also placed on three years probation

The one good news for UNC from the NCAA investigation was that while they found UNC guilty of fraud and failure to monitor, they did not find them guilty of lack of institutional control. What that means is that while it did happen on the watch of the UNC administration, the players, football coaches, and tutor were held responsible for what happened rather than the university itself.

 

In a way, this scandal gave birth to the Paper Class Scandal because of the players who were kicked off the team for their involvement.

One, Michael McAdoo, was accused of having the aforementioned tutor complete a bibliography and works cited section of a research paper for him. The paper was for a class in the African American Studies (AFAM) department. Another of the players expelled from the team, Marvin Austin, was found by Dan Kane of the News and Observer in Raleigh to have taken a 400 level AFAM course the summer before his freshman year. It would be strange in any circumstances for a freshman to be eligible for a 400 level college class. It’s really strange when that freshman is a football player and the class is in the same department where there was recently confirmed to be a case of academic dishonesty.

Strike three for AFAM came when some students from NC State dug up current NFL defensive lineman Julius Peppers’ academic record and found he had a cumulative GPA of 1.82 with 11 Ds or Fs and his highest grades in AFAM classes. First, this is only further proof that the strongest force on Earth is hatred between rival college football teams. Second, while this doesn’t really prove anything the allegation is clearly that the AFAM classes kept him eligible. My main question, however, is how the hell was he not ineligible? I realize it’s up to each school to set eligibility rules as far as grades go, but come on.

Amidst all of this, AFAM department chair Julius Nyang’oro resigned. I call this the Pete Carroll. Something comes to light that makes your organization not look great, but certainly doesn’t seem like the end of the world. However, the head of that organization resigns because they know things are about to get a lot worse.

 

In response to these events, UNC decided to conduct an internal investigation. Examining courses offered in the AFAM department between 2007 and 2011, the investigation found that around 40% of students enrolled were football or basketball players. It concluded, though, that these athletes did not receive preferential treatment in AFAM classes (“Hey, these classes were a complete joke for everyone!”). Of the classes examined, nine were found to have no evidence of a professor who taught or graded any assignments. Many classes had Julius Nyang’oro listed as the instructor, and it was found that in these instances there was either no professor or a professor who more or less did nothing.

The findings from UNC’s investigation prompted a successive investigation in 2012, this one commissioned by former North Carolina governor Jim Martin. This investigation found that, going back 15 years to the 1990s, there were over 200 lecture courses in the AFAM department that never took place. Additionally, some classes had professors who never showed up, some had little to no assigned work (“independent study”), and others where the only assignments was one paper at the end of the course (the source of the term “paper class”). Unsurprisingly, Martin found that student-athletes were disproportionately enrolled in these various suspicious classes.

Fraud charges were brought against Nyang’oro (he was being paid to not teach) but the charges were dropped because of his cooperation with the investigation. While that’s an arrangement that makes sense, this was a phenomenal deal for Nyang’oro in hindsight given how little fallout there would ultimately be.

The story really gained national attention in 2014 when Mary Willingham, a former academic tutor at UNC who had been hired specifically to assist athletes, went to the national media (CNN and Bloomberg as well as HBO’s Real Sports) with much broader accusations. She claimed there was a hard drive with a database of old papers that athletes would reuse with minor changes. She also said that she had directed student athletes to take classes within the AFAM department she knew to not be legitimate. Those claims aside, what really drew the attention was her claim that 60% of football and basketball players read between a 4th and 8th grade level, and 10% below a third grade level.

Looking to refute such a claim, UNC released a report containing data on the 341 football and basketball players enrolled at the school between 2004 and 2012, including SAT and ACT scores. CNN decided to run the numbers to see if Willingham’s claims had any basis in the test scores. They picked a threshold for college literacy as an SAT reading score of 400 or higher or an ACT score of at least 16 (for what it’s worth the school’s averages are 645 (2400 point model) and 25 respectively). Based on this, they found that around 10% of the players were not college literate when they were admitted to the university. While this isn’t a great look for UNC it’s a far cry from Willingham’s 60% claim. The university concluded that Willingham’s claims couldn’t be taken seriously because she never provided a methodology for how she came up with her numbers.

Willingham’s most noteworthy accusation, however, came when she appeared on ESPN’s Outside the Lines with with a 146 word essay about Rosa Parks and claimed a student-athlete had turned that in in an AFAM class as their only assignment and gotten an A-. The paper essentially became the entire scandal, supercedeing all of the other evidence and claims that had been previously presented and making the scandal a national news story.

The problem was, the paper was not what Willingham claimed it to be. It was, instead, likely a draft of an assignment for a real class (although it’s possible, I would say even likely, that this was one of those “paper classes”) and there was no evidence of what grade the student received. 

Things did not get better for Willingham’s credibility. Dan Kane, the reporter from the News and Observer, reported that portions of her master’s thesis appeared to have been plagiarized, because of course.

I find this story to have a lot of parallels to the one involving former Ohio State, now Dallas Cowboys, running back Ezekiel Elliott. Long story short, his girlfriend accused him of assault, the first 90% of her story was credible, but then she was found to have made some final details up. As a result, charges against Elliot were dropped. Similarly, Willingham had legitimate concerns and more than enough evidence to make a case that there was rampant academic fraud at UNC, but got carried away and lost her credibility.

Willingham resigned and then sued UNC, who were forced in 2015 to pay her $335,000 as a settlement.

Personally, I find it odd that UNC hired her in the first place. Her thesis for her master’s was titled “Academics & athletics – a clash of cultures: Division I football programs” and was largely about the discrepancy in the academic qualifications of football players vs the general student body. While the idea that student-athletes don’t need the same level of academic merit to get into a given school is an understood reality, maybe if you know there’s some shady stuff going on academically with your athletic program you shouldn’t hire a woman whose masters thesis might as well have read “it is wrong that student-athletes are often given a free pass.” Or, as she put it in 2014:

“The athletic scholarship is just a lottery ticket with room and board, and a few concussions. Or, if you like Willy Wonka, it’s the golden ticket to win a tour here at our factory – where, by the way, you might get injured, or damaged. And there’s no insurance, no workers comp and no salary for labor”

In other words, athletes are neither paid nor educated and personally assume all risk. Here I think Willingham certainly has a point. Colleges and universities are often failing college athletes, most of whom will never be professionals in their sport of choice, by failing to educate them as they use them for monetary gain. Much of what Willingham claimed was consistent with prior revelations, but the way to help student-athletes isn’t to go to the media and depict them as less intelligent than they actually are.

 

Following all of Willingham’s accusations UNC found themselves conducting yet another internal investigation of their athletic program, this time hiring former Justice Department official Kenneth L Wainstein. He found that over 3,100 students had taken the non-existent AFAM classes and that “counselors saw the paper classes and the artificially high grade they yielded as key to helping some student-athletes remain eligible.” While this isn’t really news at this point, it confirms the idea that the entire purpose of these classes existing was to help student-athletes keep their grades up.

Joel Curran, then the UNC vice chancellor of communications, said that UNC’s goal was to have an “academic success program” that stood out “among peer universities.” This is the rub. By “academic success” he’s not talking about actually teaching these students anything. All “academic success” means is keeping their GPAs high enough that they can continue to play football or basketball and make the university money. As for comparing themselves to their peers, all I hear there is “yeah, our academics are a sham for athletes, but at least we aren’t as bad as the other guys!”

 

Punishment did come from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools who placed UNC on probation for one year.

It seemed likely that discipline from the NCAA, who opened an investigation of their own would follow.

The story then went quiet for a couple of years until last fall, when the NCAA announced they found no rule violations had been committed by UNC. As absolutely crazy as it sounds, it turns out there is no rule saying that players have to actually go to class. This is because that under NCAA rules, the definition of academic fraud is left to the universities themselves, which is a total joke. Basically, if UNC thinks it isn’t academic fraud that students are registered for classes that don’t exist, then it isn’t fraud. Part of UNC’s defense was that a precedent had been set by earlier Auburn and Michigan fraud cases where there was no punishment from the NCAA (*insert rant about how “this was the legal interpretation a long time ago so we have to stick with it now” is a terrible argument here*).

In the end, there are no incentives for schools not to do things like this when there’s no threat of punishment. Think of all the schools the NCAA has vacated wins from, has that changed behavior in any obvious way? I don’t think so. If your only form of punishment for bad behavior is to tell people who played in a game that it never happened you’re going to have a hard time getting them to respect your supposed authority.

The thing is, the NCAA knows this is a problem. Mark Emmert, the NCAA President, has pointed out that accrediting institutions, like the NCAA, basically only have two options when they want to punish a University as a whole. One is probation, which is less than a slap on the wrist, and the other is de-accridation, which amounts to putting the school out of business. Given that the circumstances would have to be incredibly extreme to cause that, there aren’t a whole of options (scroll down about half way in this article to hear about this from Emmert himself).

 

In my mind the basic question is this: Are universities required to educate students in a certain way, and how do schools square athletic success with the overarching academic purpose of college?

In general, I don’t think it’s a good idea to over-regulate universities. Part of what makes the American university system so successful is that in letting schools be responsible for the various programs they offer and how they instruct their students we have thousands of institutions that all offer something unique, and this diversity has created both excellence through competition and maximum choice for students.

But when it comes to athletics, it’s clear many schools are willing to shun their academic missions in pursuit of athletic success and profit. I personally doubt fraud on the level of what was exposed at UNC is rampant but there’s no denying that for certain schools the academics of student-athletes take a back seat.

There’s a few ways to potentially fix this.

The most obvious but perhaps least likely is for schools to not reduce their academic standards when admitting athletes. If such a thing were to happen, schools like Duke Michigan, Notre Dame and Stanford would go from athletic powerhouses to something akin to teams from the Ivy League. Given the power schools like those hold, this is almost certainly out of the question.

Another common solution is to change nothing and pay the players. If they aren’t being educated, at least give them something right? While this is an issue that could be discussed and debated at great length, the main issue is that you’d have to pay every student-athlete, not just football and basketball players, and figuring out how would be a logistical nightmare.

A third idea is to separate higher education and preparation for professional athletics altogether. If someone’s goal is to play sports professionally, would it not make sense for them to be training specifically for that career? This isn’t a novel idea, as it’s how youth sports work in more or less every other country on Earth (you could write a book on “things only America does a certain way”). FC Barcelona in Spain has kids training at their academy as young as seven years old, and while the players are in school, soccer is certainly the priority. In most countries it is common for professional sports teams to run this sort of system. I’m not sure it would ever work in the US, but it’s an option.

There are no easy answers to this question. For now, I think the best course of action is for universities not to admit student-athletes who will not be able to succeed, or at the very least survive, academically. Very few college athletes end up playing professionally, so even if a student-athlete is taking easy classes or receiving extensive tutoring they better learn something while giving four years of their lives for the benefit of a university.

I don’t know what the moral of this story is, but I can’t help but feel the days of the NCAA as we know it are numbered. If this sort of scandal isn’t what brings about that end (or scandals when much more serious harm has been done like at Penn State, Baylor or Michigan State) then I wait with both anticipation and concern about what such scandal would have to involve.

 

 

 

Sources: CNN, News and Observer, Wikipedia

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