If you’re a college student playing sports, you’re a student-athlete. If you’re turning pro in something other than sports, you’re a serious student. If you’re turning pro in your junior year, you’re a serious athlete. But while in college, you’re still a student-athlete who has to take academics and eligibility seriously and the university has an obligation to do the same.
The long running scandals at the University of North Carolina have covered a lot of ground, some familiar, some ground breaking. The ethical ignorance, willful or not on the part of the student-athletes and those in the athletic and academic departments have provided some valuable lessons for everyone. The ethical and now alleged criminal lapses by those who absolutely knew better illustrates the need for a wider, pro-active approach to protecting the products and brand associated with a major Division 1 university like UNC.
While the Chairman of the African-American Studies Department, Professor Julius Nyang’oro was allegedly making up non-existent classes, the Philosophy Department needs to start adding a few new ones in Sports Ethics & Integrity.
What began as an NCAA investigation into impermissible benefits for a few football players morphed into a criminal investigation by the Secretary of State’s Office for improper agent activity in violation of the state’s Uniform Athlete Agent Act. That case resulted in the arrests of five people and is believed to be the first prosecution of its kind in the nation.
It then exposed an academic eligibility scandal involving illegal grade changes, non-existent classes and criminal fraud. The investigation of this scandal was headed by the former Governor of North Carolina, James G. Martin who brought it to the attention of the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation. Their investigation resulted in the indictment of Professor Nyang’oro who was charged with “unlawfully, willfully and feloniously accepting payment with the intent to cheat and defraud”.
In the midst of the academic scandal came a wider allegation made by Mary Willingham, a UNC reading specialist and tutor who conducted a study that revealed a significant percentage of football and basketball players at UNC are reading at 3rd or 4th grade levels. She found as many as 60% of 183 student-athletes she selected were below grade level. She also claims that these issues are not confined to UNC but could be found throughout Division 1 athletics.
Professor Nyang’oro may have exploited the opportunity for a “niche product” to fill the eligibility void for students who needed an easy A to boost their GPA and no one should be surprised to learn that he had help selling it. If so, my experience as a former federal agent says he’ll start naming names in a plea bargain for leniency. If he does, the scandal only gets bigger and worse. If Ms. Willingham is right, it’s only a matter of time before another prestigious university finds themselves “tarred” by their own version of the “Carolina Way”.
UNC did the right thing with the NCAA impermissible benefits and the subsequent fraud investigation. After all, there was compelling evidence pointing at the guilty parties. However, Mary Willingham’s allegations point to problems not evidence or suspects. Given the scope of the current scandals, UNC’s initial reaction to her claim was condemnation and containment.
Their reaction was understandable. Mary Willingham wasn’t pointing to a failure by the compliance personnel to police the usual suspects of runners and agents, or to the criminal actions of a department head, she was pointing to an institutional failure where the athletic efforts demanded from their athletes was not met with an academic effort expected from or worthy of their educators.
UNC’s new Chancellor at Chapel Hill, Carol Folt and its Athletic Director Lawrence Cunningham seem to be grasping the scope of the problem. Both publicly recognized that academic oversight and institutional shortcomings were ignored for years. Folt and Cunningham also acknowledged the scandals greatly damaged UNC’s reputation, integrity and brand.
Universities like UNC, make commitments to their student-athletes to meet certain expectations relative to their academic and athletic education. A failure to teach and practice ethical behavior creates a risky environment that threatens their college careers before they set foot on campus.
In deceiving themselves and their student-athletes, UNC’s athletic programs enjoyed the fruit from a poisonous tree that they helped cultivate. Their willful blind eyes and tolerance for “institutional shortcomings” eventually produced criminal academics and fraud indictments. This scandal raises questions about the entire athletic program, even in sports where no one has yet raised an eyebrow.
Restoring UNC’s integrity, reputation and brand begins with the antidote for fraud: ethics, honesty and truth. The truth is most but not all student-athletes are student athletes hoping to turn pro in something other than sports. For those few who are more athlete than student, a new approach is needed to provide them with an honest education as well as a sporting chance to succeed in life.
UNC has, for example, the resources to red-shirt a recruit for a year or two to improve their academic qualifications and guarantee them a meaningful college degree while attending or upon return from their professional careers.
If Chancellor Folt or AD Cunningham are serious about winning integrity, they should begin seeking solutions from Mary Willingham and the whistleblowers who never lost it.