For almost two decades at the University of North Carolina, thousands of student-athletes graduated with good grades, despite not meeting their professors, attending classes, or doing any coursework.
For a grade as good as A or B in certain classes in the African and Afro-American Studies department (AFAM), student athletes only had to write a single plagiarized paper of a few paragraphs—worse than the academic level of an eighth-grader. The classes became known as "paper classes." Between 1993, when these fake classes were first set up, and 2011, when they stopped because of a criminal investigation, more than 3,100 students graduated with the help of non-existent classes and almost half of them were athletes.
And then, in a massive cover-up, the athletic department, players, coaches, and other administration at UNC spent years vehemently denying and knowingly lying about the faux coursework, claiming that UNC student-athletes really did earn their degrees.The lies held up until a report last week revealed what many suspected: the biggest student-athletics scandal in the country.
"Everybody knew," Mary Willingham, who worked at UNC athletics from 2003-2010 and has come to be known as the whistleblower in this case, told VICE Sports. "Anyone who had anything to do with academics [for student-athletes] knew what was going on."
Willingham said that athletics staff was supposed to do weekly checks on what classes their athletes were taking, so there was no way for them not to know what was going on.
While she was a reading specialist serving student-athletes, Willingham said she and her colleagues were in a constant conflict looking for professors who would pass the student-athletes through the system. Every year between 2005-2010, she had athletes come to her who had never written a paragraph before or didn't know a verb from a noun. In her English 101 sessions with these athletes, she used prompt cards to get them to read.
"It became progressively worse because we became such a football school," she said. "The NCAA system from an education point of view is a scam."
She conducted independent research, which was later submitted in a court case, and found that among 182 athletes that she screened between 2005 and 2012, about 60 percent had reading scores at fourth-to eighth-grade levels, and about 10 percent were "functionally illiterate." She just didn't know how to help or prepare them for their classes.
When she initially made the revelation about the low reading levels of the student-athletes, NCAA Vice President of Academic and Membership Affairs Kevin Lennon told CNN: "Once the school admits them, the school should do everything it can to make sure the student succeeds." Both Lennon and the NCAA communications department refused comment on this story.
The bigger problem lies with how the NCAA is structured and how UNC lets students in the front door whose SAT scores are far below college levels. A large number of athletes in the revenue generating sports are not prepared to take on the rigors of college work when they arrive on campus. With no remedial or extra classes to help them catch up, the only solution seems to be keeping them eligible via fraud.
Willingham points out that this is a race issue: the hard work of men playing basketball and football funds 26 non-revenue generating teams; including swimming, fencing, field hockey and lacrosse, which are mostly played by white, privileged kids who arrive at UNC prepared for a college education. Their academic success helps everyone put on a face that says all is well with the athletic-academic balance. But ultimately, this comes at a cost to the football and basketball players who don't get a real education. But if UNC stops admitting these students who are valuable to the university's bottom line—or takes the time to properly educate them to the possible detriment of their athletic performance—the university will risk sacrificing its sporting dominance, and the money that dominance generates through TV rights and sponsorships.
"It's just the way this (NCAA) animal, this machine works. It's set up to make a lot of money for a bunch of old white guys. It's not set up for athletes to learn and be educated," Willingham said.
In his investigation, Wainstein found that one student-athlete was enrolled in as many as 19 different paper classes. Former women's basketball academic adviser Jan Boxill said in an email that she believed an athlete was enrolled in only "two real courses." Boxill's crucial role in this scandal is ironic because she served as the director of UNC's Parr Center for Ethics while all this was happening. Ten of the 15 players on UNC's 2005 national championship winning men's basketball team were AFAM majors.
And yet, the report has cleared all present coaches, including Roy Williams, of any blame, accepting that Williams wasn't aware of what was going on, despite 167 enrollments in AFAM during his 11 years at North Carolina. The report largely focuses on the initiators and orchestrators of the whole scam —AFAM Department Assistant Deborah Crowder and Professor Julius Nyang'oro, both now retired. Nyang'oro, whose performance wasn't once reviewed in 20 years by UNC, admitted to giving a women's basketball player a B+ when he thought that she deserved an F, on the instructions of Boxill.
The conspiracy goes all the way back to the time of famed coach Dean Smith, under whom 54 men's basketball players were enrolled in fake courses. Former UNC basketball Head Coach Matt Doherty told investigators that when he took over, Smith told him that he shouldn't change any academic support system staff—leaving little doubt that the coaches were in on the scam.
Similarly, Williams' public statements contradict what he told the investigators. He feigned ignorance when the AFAM classes were first being investigated by the Raleigh News & Observor, saying perhaps the recent dip in enrollments in the program was because athletes were no longer interested in that major. Then he went on an offensive earlier this year and denied that there was anything amiss when 2005 championship-winning basketball player Rashad McCants said that he graduated with fraudulent grades. McCants said Williams "100 percent" knew about the system. But in the report he manages to get by with the excuse that he let his Assistant Wayne Walden and Assistant Coach Joe Holladay take care of academics.
When UNC conducted an internal investigation in 2011 after numerous reports about academic fraud, Karen Gil, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, told investigators to focus only on the 2007-2011 time frame—more proof of how desperately everyone from the dean on down was trying to keep the lid on this one.
Willingham feels that the investigation is still missing a major step that relates to the decision makers and the admission process: why these athletes who had such low reading and writing levels were admitted in the first place, when UNC knew they didn't have the resources or the setup to educate them.
Some others at the university don't think the problem is so widespread that it deprives students of a meaningful education. "I have to look at the big picture. These were 3,000 out of the three million that have graduated in that time," said Deborah Stroman, who is on faculty at UNC's Business School and Director of the Sports Entrepreneurship and Community Engagement department. She also works with the Center for Ethics and the NCAA's Office of Inclusion. "It wasn't the entire education that was at fault. A major is 30 to 40 credits, and these classes didn't make for the entire degree of those athletes. They couldn't get away with that one class."
The NCAA has not stated how it plans to go about this investigation, or whether it plans to sanction UNC or declare that the university acted in violation of its membership. But perhaps the real apology should go to the "student-athletes" who never got the education they were promised. "I don't know how some people sleep at night," Willingham said. "Many hundreds took enough paper classes that we owe these people a chance at a real education."