Silence Broken in UNC Athletic Scandal

 

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His name is Rashad McCants, but it might as well be Terry Malloy, the character played by Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront.  McCants was the second leading scorer on the UNC basketball team that won the national title in 2005.  Now he tells us that he was essentially a ringer, a sham student making sham superlative grades while not attending a single class.  All he had to do was to turn in a paper at the end of the semester in UNC’s notorious African American Studies (AFAM) program, one that was written for him by a “tutor” hired by the athletic department, and the marginal student McCants found himself on the Dean’s List.  In the AFAM classes that he actually had to attend and take tests, McCants now tells us, the answers were given to him and his fellow players in advance by those same tutors. 

 

Like Terry Malloy, “You don’t do anything and you don’t say anything,” and a really cushy job was Rashad’s for the enjoyment.  All he had to do was to play ball, which he did well enough not only to help his team win the national championship but also to get himself selected in the first round of the NBA draft.  Now he’s pushing 30, playing basketball overseas, and in the immortal words of Terry’s older brother in the taxi scene (played by Rod Steiger), he’s turned “cheese-eater.”

 

So far, like Terry Malloy, McCants is very much alone:

 

In a joint statement Friday, sixteen players from the 2005 team - including NBA players Raymond Felton and Marvin Williams, and Final Four Most Outstanding Player Sean May - defended their Hall of Fame coach.

''With conviction, each one of us is proud to say that we attended class and did our own academic work,'' the players said.

 

It didn’t take Dan Kane of the Raleigh News and Observer very long to pop that particular bubble of opposition to the McCants revelations:

 

Rashad McCants was not the only UNC men’s basketball player from the 2005 national championship team who relied heavily on African studies classes that didn’t meet, according to whistleblower Mary Willingham, who tutored athletes during that period.

Data she provided to The News & Observer show that five members of that team, including at least four key players, accounted for a combined 39 enrollments in classes that have been identified as confirmed or suspected lecture classes that never met. The data also show that the five athletes accounted for 13 enrollments that were accurately identified as independent studies.

Those classes are also suspect because for much of the last decade, the department offered far more independent studies than it could properly supervise, previous reviews have shown.

But really, what did you expect those teammates of McCants to say?  His charges—that is to say, his revelations—reflect very badly upon a large number of people, not the least of whom are the players themselves.  I had encountered the same herd instinct at work in a similar fashion during a previous athletic scandal at UNC.  In the spring of 1971 I was a third-year graduate student at UNC teaching two sections of economic principles.  As it happened, I had five football players in one section and one in the other.  Their classwork had gone from acceptable to non-existent after spring football practice had begun.  Calling them aside after all had failed the second test abysmally, I was treated to one horror story after another as they described their workday under the grueling regimen of spring practice, which had begun after the first test.  I suggested to my supervising professor that we register a complaint with the dean of the business school for him to carry to the university administration because of the way the football program was undermining our educational mission.  I even went to the student newspaper hoping that they would write an exposé.  I was brushed off in each case.

In late summer that year, before the beginning of the 1971 season, an offensive tackle died of heat stroke after the coaches ignored his classic symptoms of a chill and the cessation of sweating.  A university investigation was done in which the coaching staff was absolved of all blame.  Not long afterward, a group of former players who had used up their eligibility held a news conference denouncing the investigation as a whitewash.  I have written about the episode in “Confessions of a Football Fanatic.”  Here we pick up the story from that article:

    The faculty stuck by their report. The coaching staff denied all the charges, and, admittedly, they were almost impossible to prove. What the eleven "malcontents and quitters," as they were called by the football people, most hoped for failed to occur. None of the members of the football team defected to their ranks. In fact, several, in most manly fashion, shaved their heads clean as a sign of support for the program, and the tradition continues even today.

 

A week or so later, in an attempt to salvage a losing cause, [the previous year’s defensive captain Bill] Richardson scheduled a bigger, better-publicized news conference. As the meeting began…with TV cameras whirring the head football coach arrived from the practice field with the whole team in tow, all in full football armor. An ugly confrontation occurred. I got there a little late this time and watched with amazement as 60 or so players, looking stern and formidable, clattered in their spiked shoes down the steps of the student union. One of them, bald-headed and mammoth, I barely recognized as one of my students who had complained most woefully about practice conditions. I had time only to splutter out, "What are you doing here?" He mumbled something like, "Gotta have a winning season," and rushed out with the others.

People who will buck the organization and the peer pressure in situations such as these are very rare, indeed.  Elementary concerns like truth and justice often take a back seat in the face of the power exerted by the larger group, and bucking the organization can be very frustrating and unrewarding, as we see in the case of another very rare individual, Miguel Rodriguez, the erstwhile lead investigator for Kenneth Starr in the Vincent Foster death case.  Things eventually turned out okay for Terry Malloy, but On the Waterfront was a Hollywood movie of the 1950s in which happy endings were almost always required.  The fate of Dr. Stockmann in Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People is perhaps more realistic.  He gets labeled with the play’s title and run out of town after his discovery that pollution from one of the town’s two major sources of income, a tannery, was responsible for illness and death casting a pall over the town’s other source of income, tourism.

First academic adviser and researcher, Willingham, and now McCants would appear to be up against the powers that be not just in North Carolina but also in national college athletics.  The National College Athletic Association (NCAA) has deemed that the AFAM matter in an internal academic problem for UNC to resolve because the classes were also attended by non-athletes, and an investigation headed by former governor Jim Martin found “no specific link between the scandal and student athletes.” So far, in the wake of the McCants and Willingham charges, the NCAA has continued to exhibit only “willful ignorance.” Willingham says that no one from the NCAA has ever even spoken to her.

 

With all the news about fraudulent classes for athletes at UNC, sight seems to have been lost of another layer of corruption related to the university’s major revenue sports, basketball and football.  That is the providing of luxury automobiles to the players and the paying of their copious parking tickets around campus.  That issue rose to the forefront last summer when the basketball team’s leading scorer, PJ Hairston, was detained by police in Durham driving a rental car that had been rented in that name of Hayden “Fats” Thomas, a Durham resident with an extensive arrest record.  The car also had marijuana inside it and a pistol had been apparently thrown onto the ground outside it.  The members of the North Carolina State online discussion group Pack Pride have done a lot more in pursuit of this issue than anyone in the news media has done.  A commenter upon an online article on the subject, who is a likely Pack Pride member, puts the matter in perspective:

 

If you actually read the thread, or looked closely at the chart you posted, you know there’s more to it than just PJ Hairston’s car and pot.

1 – Leslie McDonald mentioned on Twitter that Fats gave him a cellphone.

2 – Most UNC basketball starters the past few years and a few UNC football players follow Fats on Twitter.

3 – Fats has established business connections with wealthy dental surgeons who list UNC sports as major hobbies. One guy owns several homes in the Triangle and over a dozen cars. Why are these guys associating with Fats, and why are so many UNC athletes associating with Fats? What does common sense tell you?

This connection is less than 24 hours old. It’s not unexpected that every connection hasn’t been proven. And, some are probably dead ends. But on top of everything else we know about UNC (fake classes, plagiarism, tutors paying players’ parking tickets, tutors being fired by the university and then personally hired by the football coach, Greg Little’s nine cars in one academic year, license plates provided by a money launderer for a violent Durham drug gang etc), I think you’d need to take crazy pills to ignore or downplay this, not to take it seriously.

 

Greg Little was a star receiver on the football team now playing with the Oakland Raiders.  He was suspended for his senior season for lying about various impermissible benefits that he received.  Leslie McDonald was a senior basketball player who was suspended for a few games over eligibility questions at the beginning of this past season.

 

The seriousness of the situation now for UNC is perhaps shown by who they have chosen to head up yet another internal investigation.  Here is what Dan Kane had to say about him:

 

[Kenneth] Wainstein climbed the ranks as a federal prosecutor after graduating from law school at the University of California at Berkeley. One of his biggest cases was the conviction of a gang leader on murder charges after three Starbucks employees were shot dead in Washington’s normally sedate Georgetown area in 1997. The murders had the city on edge.

 

The “gang leader” he’s talking about is one Carl Derek Cooper, a hapless petty criminal now doing life in prison because, in a plea bargain to escape execution, he was maneuvered into pleading guilty to a crime that he almost surely did not commit.  I call him the “Starbucks Fall-Back Fall Guy.”  The intended fall guy, Kenneth Maurice “Boo” Covington looked like the perfect patsy.  After marathon questioning without a lawyer present, Cooper had implicated Covington, who had a similar drug-dealing record to Cooper’s.  He also knew one of the victims, which would explain how he gained entry into the store after it was closed for the night.  But Covington, as it turned out, had an ironclad alibi, so they stuck it on Cooper.  They never explained how he got into the establishment to pull off his triple murder botched robbery with those two guns that were never found.  A possibly important fact is that one of the victims—who was shot five times in the face—was a political activist and the co-founder of an organization called the Lesbian Avengers and had been an intern in the Clinton White House.

 

In the wake of the ESPN interview of McCants, “Bubba Cunningham, the UNC athletic director, released a statement Friday in which he encouraged McCants to speak with Kenneth Wainstein, a former federal prosecutor UNC hired in January to investigate past issues of mixing academics and athletics.”

 

I do not recommend that course of action.  It might not be exactly the same thing as urging Terry Malloy to tell everything he knew to union boss Johnny Friendly’s lawyer, but I’m afraid it’s close.

David Martin

June 11, 2014

 

 

 

 

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