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Why the Tarheels Deserve the Death Penalty


P.J. Hairston

The academic scandal consuming the University of North Carolina sports program represents the most morally offensive institutional misconduct in the history of college sports.

It’s far worse than the money-for-athletes misbehavior that seems to pop up every few months or so…whether it’s Johnny Football’s autographs, or Reggie Bush’s mansion, or Chris Mills’ Emery package, or even the Pony Express payoffs that resulted in SMU football receiving the NCAA’s death penalty: a complete one-year ban on competition.

From an institutional perspective, it’s far more troublesome than any point-shaving scheme — the late 1940’s college hoops gambling epidemic and the Goodfellas collision with Boston College cagers were both discrete malfeasances manipulated by unsavory outsiders.

And while the underlying behavior isn’t nearly as repugnant as Jerry Sandusky’s sickening devastation of innocent young lives, the systematic conspiracy among the UNC administration, faculty, and athletics — as well as the direct and destructive impact on the very student-athletes whom the university is entrusted to protect — makes Penn State’s see-no-evil coaches and administrators appear in comparison to be just a bumbling collection of fools.

Accordingly, there is one, inescapable conclusion:  The University of North Carolina athletics program deserves the death penalty.

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Let me pause for a moment for some personal disclosure and reflection.  One of the myriad reasons I’m so excited to have joined the KSR team is that Matt Jones and crew have helped shatter the myth of pure “objective journalism.”  There are certainly some outstanding journalists in sports, politics, and elsewhere who work hard to portray both sides of every story fairly.  But to be human is to be biased; and I believe that the best writing occurs when writers wear their partisanship on their sleeves so that readers can make the ultimate judgment in the proper context.

So…if you read my first piece last week, you know that I’m a card-carrying member of the Big Blue Nation.  As such, I wouldn’t be disappointed to see the Tarheels fall farther behind my Cats in the chase for history’s winningest college basketball program.  (And does anyone have any dirt on Kansas?)

But I’ve never been a Carolina hater: I loved the MJ teams of the 80s; I rooted for the Heels against the obnoxious Fab Five in ’93 and against the annoying Izzo in ’09; and unlike their elitist, patronizing archrivals down the road in Durham, the Tarheels have always seemed to conduct themselves with an appearance of class.

Much of UNC’s enduring reputation is due to the leadership and stewardship of one of the game’s most revered figures — the impossible-to-dislike, the very emblem of collegiate fair play, Dean Smith.  But apparently, when Smith was in the process of hanging up his proverbial hightops, the school’s appearance of class metastasized into disappearances in class.

If you haven’t tuned into ESPN lately (and if not, what exactly are you doing at this Web site?), it was revealed that over an 18 year period, more than 3100 University of North Carolina students — almost half of them athletes — enrolled in a series of sham African and Afro-American (AFAM) Studies classes.  These courses provided students with respectable grades despite them never having to take a test, or even to show up in class.

Last week, UNC released a report, conducted by a group led by former U.S. Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein, that uncovered a cynical cabal of faculty members, administrators, and academic advisers behind the scheme.  These officials conspired to keep athletes eligible to play (which required maintenance of a 2.0 GPA) by steering them to classes in which the only requirement was a single paper that was never read, but in which A’s and B’s were bestowed simply for signing up.  An example of the fraudulent absurdity?  Students in third-level Swahili were able to fulfill the elite university’s foreign language requirement by writing a paper on African culture in English, not Swahili.

Indeed, the Wainstein Report revealed that AFAM Studies Chair Julius Nyang’oro and manager Deborah Crowder ran a “shadow curriculum” whereby students received no instruction — indeed, many had no interaction, ever, with any faculty member.

So far, no top school officials or leading coaches have been implicated in the wrongdoing.  But as the report made clear, the classes’ existence were an open secret on campus: Academic advisers who were entrusted with keeping athletes eligible to play encouraged them to bolster their GPAs by enrolling.  Worse yet, the damage wasn’t limited to the athletic department — word spread throughout the Greek system — indeed, 53% of the students impacted were not athletes.

My friend and fellow recovering politician, Jeff Smith, was an AFAM major at UNC during the first four years of the academic fraud, though he did not enroll in any of the so-called “paper classes.”  Now a professor himself at The New School in New York City, Smith knows his way around academia and crime (check out his journey from politics to prison and his insights on prison sex).  He reports that for at least a few mid-1990s-era athletes, the troubling culture underlying the scheme permeated some of the AFAM program’s regular classes: “I had classes with prominent football and basketball players, and they were pretty much like other students; some were excellent, attended class regularly and participated in class and study groups.  But others rarely showed or participated. I could say the exact same for frat boys or women’s soccer players.  That’s not to deny what apparently occurred, but to try to contextualize it.”

It is this context that illuminates the central problem with the UNC scandal.  Oceans of ink, liquid and virtual, have been spilled debating the rising professionalism of intercollegiate athletics.  While some desperately grasp to the Athenian ideal of amateurism, I think we should be paying college athletes (more on that in future KSR columns).  But whatever the future holds, the bargain we have with college athletes today is that in turn for universities profiting from their labor, students receive free education: For the 99.9 per cent who will never earn a dollar in professional sports, the consideration for playing sports is academic preparation for the workplace.

Certainly, the widely publicized pay-for-play scandals deserve punishment — paying some athletes and not others undermines the integrity of the game.  But from a moral perspective concerning student welfare — and that’s supposed to be the NCAA’s and member universities’ focus — it’s less troubling.  In a perfect world, Manziel and Bush and Eric Dickerson should be able to earn back some of the money they are making for the university.

In stark contrast, the UNC scandal subverts the very moral bargain universities cut with student athletes.  The Tarheel students who took these courses received no education; in fact, many had no contact with instructors.  They were funneled through this fraud as a ruse to maintain their spot on the team; and for the vast supermajority who didn’t go pro, cast adrift on the job market with fewer tangible skills and less training.  And thousands of non-athletes were collateral damage, graduating with a devalued diploma.

The scope and length of the conspiracy, the direct harm caused to students, and the deep undermining of the integrity of the student/athletic system all point to an obvious outcome:  North Carolina sports deserves the death penalty.  One year in which no varsity sports program can compete in NCAA activities.  And of course, harm to unsuspecting, innocent students should be mitigated — all scholarships should be honored, no eligibility should be lost, and any student who wishes to transfer should not be penalized by having to sit out a year.

The UNC scandal is the example of a complete loss of institutional control in a way that directly harmed the very young people whom the university was entrusted to protect.  The message must be clear: This can never happen again.

NCAA President Mark Emmert stated that “this is a case that potentially strikes at the heart of what higher education is about.”  He’s right.  And if college sports is to maintain any credibility, Emmert must strike at the heart of the Tarheel sports program.

North Carolina deserves the death penalty.  Otherwise, the term “student athlete” will continue its long, slow devolution into a oxymoronic punch line.

Article written by Jonathan Miller

Jonathan Miller, The Recovering Politician (Twitter: @RecoveringPol), writes about the politics of sport and the sport of politics...and sometimes about bourbon. Jonathan has been elected twice as Kentucky's State Treasurer; practices as a crisis management attorney; authored three books on faith, public policy and crisis management; serves as a Contributor to The Daily Beast, played straight man on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart; reached the final table of the World Series of Poker; and with his summer camp sweetheart, raised two remarkable twenty-something daughters.

51 responses to “Why the Tarheels Deserve the Death Penalty”

  1. Gharris

    Helluva article.

    1. Casper

      Ditto! Outstanding work!
      Use this as your Phd theisi

  2. Cowboy

    Amen, Good Sir. Amen.

  3. KevinM

    Jonathon, excellent piece of writing….now let’s see if Emmert and the NCAA will put in half the effort investigating this.

  4. app2twm

    Well said, and very persuasive. Now, someone please send this to Emmert.

  5. wildcat502

    I completely agree with you, because I have said the exact thing. Basketball has only 12 to 15 players to worry about, unlike footballs 105 to 120. With 4 coaches and all of the academic advisors available, there`s no way the coaches wasn`t aware of what was going on there. If they weren`t aware of it, then they were not doing their jobs. Because the coaches jobs goes far beyond just coaching. They are the parents of these kids for 4 years, if they care about them. And this went on for 18 years?????
    I`ve said North Carolina should receive the death penalty and the university, as a whole, should be punished or hit with an extreme fine. But they probably wont because it would tarnish Williams “legacy”.
    If nothing happens to NC because of this, then the NCAA should never punish another university, for anything. They worry about a player receiving money for an autograph, but are they really worried about the kids receiving an education, as they say. We`ll see. The answer is NO if NC goes unpunished or gets a hand slap.

  6. catheaven

    Excellent piece. I have been outraged over this for months. If this had been UK, it would have been headlines all over the country and punishment issued right away. Probably on probation for years. NCAA does not act consistently across the board for everyone. Obsolete organization. They are a joke. This should have been acted upon by them immediately and sanctions, fines, probation, and anything else they could throw at them issued well before now. Outrageous that they can get away with this.

  7. msnthrop

    This talk of college sports having some kind of moral aspect to it is kind of amusing…3100 students, not a single one had any kind of public complaint, so their moral standing is what exactly? It looks to me like every single one of them was content to participate in the fraud…are they all without morality or is the idea they enter into a moral bargain with an institution actually kind of ridiculous. When you can’t pay students with money you pay them with an easy class…and before it is said they were all somehow damage irreparably by the experience I’d really want to see the, at the least, the outcomes of these 3100 students compared to a random sample of 3100 of their peers. I think they learned a very valuable lesson…when someone is making a lot of money off of your work, get back what you can back.

    1. ukjaybrat

      i heard the sham classes were getting the attention of the accreditation boards. Think there’s any chance UNC has to re-accredit their programs related to those classes?

  8. darthblue

    Not going to happen… UNC makes too much money for the NCAA- it is all about the revenue. This is a multi-billion dollar business. This story is not scintillating enough to end up on the cover of Sports Illustrated or weeks on the national news casts. It is an University “gaming” the farce that is the NCAA by pumping up the GPA’s of their AKALI (that is Swahili for INTELLIGENT) “student”-athletes. UNC should forfeit their NCAA titles and WINS accrued over those years. NCAA and Emmert do not have the testicular fortitude to take on a major university like UNC-Chapel Hill. This case tests the foundation that the NCAA stands. Great writing Jonathan nonetheless.

  9. ChanceyPantz

    Great piece Johnathan. Absolutely spot on!

  10. david8577

    Nice post Jonathan. This is the end of whatever credibility the NCAA had left.

  11. wu slang

    The fact that North Carolina has done this for so long would make you think the NCAA should at least place them on probation (Death penalty would be appropriate, but I don’t think the NCAA has the stones.) Interestingly, new ACC member Syracuse is also being investigated for academic fraud and ‘improper benefits.’

  12. Rixter

    Hey, what’s this serious journalism crap???

    In all seriousness, this is the best article I’ve ever read on KSR. Good work, Jonathon.

  13. Leuther

    Great post, Jon – both style and substance! Not used to seeing such on KSR…

  14. Wildcat13

    Great article!!! As others have stated, unfortunately, the NCAA will move slowly until the whole thing blows over. What really makes me furious is all the negative things put out there about Kentucky student-athletes … especially when the “haters” have no idea that Cal (etal) makes sure our guys stay on track.

    1. Wildcat13

      Jonathan – It’s very cool that you respond to the comments on your article. Also, the new concept of having to be “logged in” to make comments, has truly enhanced the caliber of conversations!

  15. Bullitt County UK fan

    Great article. I think the whole UNC scandal has somehow gone completely under the radar. Will the NCAA just basically ignore it like usual, or will it actually act like the governing body it is. I think this could make or break the ncaa, exept not so much the make part.

  16. chief_cat

    Terrific article Jonathan. If Emmert, et al, read the report and place any credence on the findings, I don’t see how the NCAA could simply give UNC a slap on the wrist.

    Certainly the NCAA has been wildly inconsistent and too often has shown favor on so-called revered institutions. Further, the NCAA could try to lean on the fact that the report doesn’t report any wrongdoing by current coaches, etc. I suppose the NCAA could water-down any punishment by arguing that point and that the university has been such a good citizen in the past (although the report clearly indicates that there was widespread fraud being committed for many years there).

    I hope, however, that Emmert will recognize that he and the NCAA are clearly being scrutinized every bit as much as the universities and programs that they were chartered to serve. Now is not the time for the NCAA to be a shrinking violet. The World Wide Leader is watching as are a number of other media outlets and their viewers/readers. If the NCAA has even a small prayer of remaining somewhat relevant they absolutely have to get this one right.

  17. memphis wildcat

    Gary Parrish was on the radio here in Memphis and had just gotten back from ACC media day and is convinced that UNCwill have it’s final four vacated

  18. nschulte13

    Great article, before I was really only in favor of stripping all the wins and championships from those 18 years from any team that had a player involved. Now though, I agree with the death penalty, and a hefty fine, but not any sort of probation or scholarship restriction after that.

  19. Lip Man 1

    Very well written article. Kudos to the author.

    Now for a reality check…from the very beginning the NCAA has claimed (and the report concurs) that athletes weren’t the only ones benefitting from these sham classes. 53% of those involved were athletes at UNC the rest were regular students.

    The NCAA has also claimed that they couldn’t find any direct evidence of coaches or members of the athletic department supervising or instituting these sham classes.

    That’s why the NCAA didn’t react in the past and why barring massive public and media pressure, they won’t do so now.

    UNC (and Duke) are the poster children for what the NCAA is supposed to be. Hammering one of them shows for all to see how things are out of control and finally destroys the myth the NCAA is trying to keep alive.

    Therefore they will do…nothing. They would rather take the barbs (which eventually will blow over and be forgotten) then in essence tear apart their organization.

    I hope I’m wrong but it’s significant that with all the evidence out there, the story in Bloomberg News, the admission by the former provost that this had been going on for decades, the NCAA hadn’t done a thing in two years.

    That speaks volumes.

    1. nschulte13

      You could very well be right, but if the NCAA does nothing, they lose what little creditability they have left and the next time they try to suspend a player or punish a school, what will happen? I do not know what power a school or conference has to ignore the NCAA, but if they do not punish UNC then try to come down on UK, or USC, or FSU, what is to stop that school or the conference from refusing to comply? If a conference like the SEC decides to no longer recognize the authority of the NCAA, that could lead to the ACC, Pac 12, Big 10, and Big 12 all deciding that as well. They have already gotten more autonomy then the other conferences.

      And I believe that there is plenty of precedent that the head coach of a team is ultimately responsible for the actions of his players and staff, even when he did not know and was not involved in any wrong doing.

  20. Finna_Go_HAM

    Jonathon, your article showed that you put a lot of thought into what you wanted to say, and its execution was done in a way to be relatable to readers on differing levels. As a fan of both sports and, to a lesser degree, politics, I’ve started to look at scandals in a differing light lately. While I still take voyueristic pleasure in seeing those I consider rivals, antagonists, etc., stripped down for public humiliation, I now look at everything with a more cautious eye. So when I see UNC’s academic issues, Crean’s run of player issues off the court, autograph-gate… I now think to myself, “If this happened at UK (or to my political party), how would I feel about it?” Would I expect the same pound of flesh? Would I think the media was out to get us? Would I believe that any institution I support be above reproach and all the hate-mongering would just be jealousy intended to drag us down? I look at the issues at Penn State then and Florida State now and compare them to what happened at Kentucky with Eric Bledsoe’s transcript issue or Enes Kanter’s quasi-professionalism. I try to view my reaction to each with the same critical eye, and I come away believing (wish I could use italics and underline there for emphasis) that what happened at PSU and FSU were/are legitimate issues and their fanbase’s have an uncompromising view against a mountain of evidence, while the issues of Bledsoe and Kanter were the actions of a lone-gunman looking to make a name for himself by taking down a high-value target. So while I agree that what’s happened at UNC is a disgrace to the University itself even more than the athletic programs, how would I feel if the scandal was happening to a different shade of blue?

    1. J-Dub421

      As a graduate of UK, I can honestly say that if this had happened at UK I would be highly ashamed. Which is why the UNC fan base is currently making me so angry. UNC fans are just whining and making a bunch of excuses and claiming “everyone else is doing it too!!” No. Everyone else is not committing mass scale academic fraud. The NCAA vacated Memphis 2008 season in which they were runner-up in the tournament with no proof of any wrong-doing because of a suspicion the D. Rose had someone else take his ACT. The NCAA investigated Rose twice before the season and cleared him to play. UNC committed mass-scale academic fraud for 18 years from 1993 to 2011, during which period they won 3 titles in basketball. All 3 titles should be vacated. The 2005 title team had 10 players who would have been ineligible without the fraudulent AFAM classes. The NCAA needs to come down on UNC hard or the next time they try to punish any other school they should be told to go piss up a rope.

    2. catheaven

      Very well said. I’ve been skeptical of Duke’s program for years. Look at all the top notch players they get, and you’re telling me those guys all can academically perform at Duke? Hmmmm. . . . Not buying it. It’s pathetic what is going on at FSU with football. Qback should be suspended pending investigation like the guy at Georgia. Again, NCAA not consistent with everybody. I have college age kids who say that the difference in those cases is the GA guy admitted what he did and FSU kid lied. So the kids are saying the lesson learned is to lie. Nice NCAA, nice message you are teaching our youth.

  21. BiggestCatsFanInOhio

    Well I have a lot of strong opinions on this but after reading through these comments (as well as Jonathan’s responses – thanks!) pretty much everything I had to offer has already been said. The NCAA probably won’t, but needs to, come down hard on UNC about this. The legitimacy and necessity of the Comittee on Infractions is riding on it. If they do nothing here, then there’s no reason for any other University to accept a punishment from the NCAA from now on.

    1. BiggestCatsFanInOhio

      ***from a moralistic standpoint. Obviously you want to compete in/win games and earn money…….

  22. Biglaw Dawgin'

    Agreed. The programs involved should each received the death penalty in their respective sport. Great points that this is not some rogue athlete taking money from an agent; this is a concerted and calculated act of academic fraud that not only involved the athletics programs, but brought in academic officials and faculty on the scheme.

    If there is no evidence that coaches were involved, keep digging, because it’s there. “Well, why were other students allowed to take those classes?” When word gets out on campus that African Studies is an easy A, what’s the administration going to do, say “no, you can’t take this class because you don’t play sports?” The majority of people taking the classes for the last 15 years were athletes, that’s no coincidence.

  23. Scout23

    In Sandy Bell we trust.

    1. catheaven

      Amen! I count on that lady and count my lucky stars UK has her. NCAA can sit Enes out altogether, but UNC and FSU continue to play while months go on during “investigation” that will result in a slap on the wrist at best. Pathetic. Time to do away with this organization.

  24. Maxbps8

    Worst Academic Scandal in NCAA history…deserves the worst penalty = 3 Year Death Penalty.
    Then an additional 7 years of post-season and scholarship penalties. Along with vacated wins including championships during the 18-years this travesty was occuring.

    That is the base-line of penalties. If the NCAA is serious and has any merit this is where the discussion will start. And then should go up from this base-line.