Scandal Bowl: Why Tar Heel Fraud Might Be Just the Start

The North Carolina Tar Heels mascot Photograph by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The corruption of academics at the University of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill campus could turn into the most revelatory of all of the undergraduate sports scandals in recent memory. Beginning three years ago with what sounded like garden-variety reports of under-the-table payments from agents and improper classroom help for athletes, the affair has spread and deepened to include evidence of hundreds of sham courses offered since the early 1990s. Untold numbers of grades have been changed without authorization and faculty signatures forged—all in the service of an elaborate campaign to keep elite basketball and football players academically eligible to play.

After belatedly catching up with the UNC debacle in this recent dispatch, I’ve decided the still-developing story deserves wider attention. Or, to put it more precisely, the excellent reporting already done by the News & Observer of Raleigh merits amplification outside of North Carolina.

The rot in Chapel Hill undermines UNC’s reputation as one of the nation’s finest public institutions of higher learning. Officials created classes that did not meet. That’s not the only reason more scrutiny is needed. There’s also the particularly pernicious way that the school’s African and Afro-American Studies Department has been used to inflate the GPAs of basketball and football players. The corruption of a scholarly discipline devoted to black history and culture underscores a racial subtext to the exploitation of college athletes that typically goes unidentified in polite discussion. (UNC’s former longtime Afro-Am chairman, Julius Nyang’oro, has been criminally indicted for fraud.)

Another reason Chapel Hill requires sustained investigation is the manner in which the athletic and academic hierarchies at UNC, along with the National Collegiate Athletic Association, have so far whitewashed the scandal. Officials have repeatedly denied that the fiasco’s roots trace to an illicit agenda that, in the name of coddling a disproportionately black undergraduate athlete population, has left many students intellectually crippled.

Dan Kane, the News & Observer‘s lead investigative reporter, does old-school, just-the-facts-m’am work—and more power to him. Digging up the basic data has been a lonely and arduous task for which Kane has been rewarded with craven accusations of home state disloyalty. As he wrote last month, the six official “reviews” and “investigations” of the wayward Afro-Am Department have all failed to connect the dots in any meaningful way. In coming weeks and months, I hope I can supplement Kane’s dogged efforts with some long-distance perspective. Valuable tips from concerned local people, some of them UNC alumni, are already pouring in, and that’s part of the reason I’m going to pursue the story. Keep those e-mails coming.

One source of insight is Jay Smith, a professor of early modern French history at UNC. A serious scholar who understands the university’s sports-happy culture, Smith has developed a powerful distaste for the way his employer has obfuscated the scandal. “What’s going on here is so important,” he told me by telephone, “because it’s emblematic of what I think goes on at major universities all across the country,” where the business of sports undermines the mission of education. That sounds right to me.

Smith has the best sort of self-interested motivation for making sense of what has happened on his campus: He’s writing a book about the whole mess, based in part on statistics and personal experiences proffered by UNC instructors assigned over the years to assist varsity athletes. To me that sounds like a page-turner—and even the basis of an HBO movie.

I asked Smith what he thinks is going to happen next. He pointed to comments that the local district attorney made when the disgraced former Afro-Am chairman, Nyang’oro, was indicted in December. Orange County DA Jim Woodall told the News & Observer that a second person is also under investigation and could be indicted soon. Woodall did not identify the second target, except to say the person is not someone who currently works for UNC. ”Other probes have identified Nyang’oro’s longtime department manager, Deborah Crowder, as being involved in the bogus classes,” the News & Observer noted. “She retired in 2009.” Both Crowder and Nyang’oro have refused to comment publicly, and Nyang’oro’s criminal defense lawyer didn’t return my e-mail inquiry.

The indictment of Crowder, a relatively low-level administrative figure, could crack open the case. It defies logic that Nyang’oro and his assistant would have operated a rogue department without the knowledge of more senior faculty members, if not top university administrators. It further defies reason that this pair would have created phony classes for athletes without the urging and participation of people in the UNC athletic bureaucracy. Nyang’oro and Crowder are going to have ample reason to sing as part of potential plea deals.

Even before that happens, according to Smith, one or more well-positioned whistle-blowers are likely to go public and start naming names if they think the powers that be are planning to isolate Crowder and Nyang’oro as the sole villains. This thing goes much higher, and there’s much more to come from Chapel Hill.

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