Former Governor Martin’s report on his independent investigation into academic fraud at UNC is due Thursday, and my educated guess is that it will confirm what we already know and reveal little that we don’t.
That’s the outcome UNC must have to finally put this scandal to rest and move on, and any new revelations would be even more damaging than the massive hit the university’s reputation has already taken. Any such new allegations would be a bombshell that could reverberate through the athletic department, past and present and future.
Martin’s report is sure to say that, yes, there were too many independent study courses offered in the Department of Afro and African-American Studies and, yes, there were too many athletes clustered in some of those courses. We already know that and the university has pledged to fix the problem that apparently created a climate conducive to cheating.
Fewer independent study courses will be offered and the students taking them will have to be fully qualified, which is the point of independent studies in the first place. Athletes liked them because they had no classes and helped balance the time burden of playing a varsity sport.
And while we may suspect that more cheating occurred than has already been exposed, some of it claimed by former athletic support employee Mary Willingham, hard proof will have been difficult to find by Martin and the Baker Tilly consulting firm that has helped conduct the investigation.
Heretofore, as far as we know, no tutors or teachers have come forward to admit they illegally helped write term papers for athletes. And the only paper found to be plagiarized belonged to former football player Michael McAdoo who after being suspended from the team went in the supplemental NFL draft to the Baltimore Ravens, where he is still on their practice squad.
By UNC policy, term papers do not have to be kept on file for more than a year, so Martin’s committee may have class rolls and transcripts but will likely uncover no evidence that any students (athletes or not) received improper help in writing the papers that determined their grades in independent study courses.
At least I hope not.
Let’s theorize what would happen if Martin found several papers by former prominent athletes at UNC that his investigation suspects were written with impermissible help from tutors or illegally plagiarized. The ramifications could be sweeping, far beyond the possible vacating of victories and championships. It would mean further investigation and more public records requests from the media, which already seems never ending.
Say those athletes were now members of professional sports teams. Just as Julius Peppers was unduly embarrassed by the publishing of his first-semester transcript, dragging any more of UNC’s famous athletic alumni into the scandal would tarnish the reputation of the pro athletes who have been such great ambassadors for the university and substantiate claims that the cheating was not contained from 2007-2011.
And say those pro stars implicated after the fact were African-Americans, like every student-athlete that was part of both the NCAA investigation and academic fraud that resulted in Carolina’s three-year probation and one-year bowl ban. The widespread unrest among the minority students on campus over the last three years is no secret, with claims that some athletes were not protected enough—in fact suspended and sacrificed too quickly by UNC.
What would this mean to Carolina’s long-standing reputation as one of the most popular schools in the country for minorities? And how much would that affect Larry Fedora’s and Roy Williams’ and all the other UNC coaches in continuing to recruit and sign quality African-American student-athletes? It certainly would not help.
Most damaging, UNC might be permanently branded the same way as other universities that have been associated with repeated academic scandals.
That Carolina has taken its medicine, fired culpable coaches and staff members and already begun fixing what was broken should be enough. It would be different if the athletic department considered getting caught the “cost of doing business” and was only paying lip services to making changes. That goes on at some SEC schools, which have served more probations than any others in the country and continue winning championships.
UNC has never been of that ilk, and what happened over the last five years was clearly an aberration that has embarrassed and hurt thousands of proud alumni. Holden Thorp and Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham have reset goals for academics and athletics that far exceed any baselines previously used for excellence in the classroom and on the playing fields.
More than 40 years ago, in the stifling summer of 1971, a Tar Heel football player named Billy Arnold suffered a heat stroke during preseason practice and died after several weeks in a coma. An investigation ensued and Coach Bill Dooley and his staff were cleared of any wrong-doing.
But what resulted spoke far more loudly than the internal probe. The football coach at Carolina no longer determined the length and nature of practices once the temperature and humidity reached a certain level, and mandatory water and rest breaks were dictated by the medical staff on hand. From an environment where the coach and team doctor controlled practice came the formation of UNC’s Sports Medicine Department, now considered one of the finest in the country.
Billy Arnold’s parents could have sued the university, but chose not to. Dooley and his staff could have been fired or reprimanded for negligence, but were not (at least publicly). Dooley remained coach of the Tar Heels for seven more seasons.
The unthinkable had happened. After grieving for Arnold, the university was more focused on making changes to ensure it never happened again than assigning blame. There was no benefit in looking back, only to learning from any mistakes that had been made.
That’s why I hope, and believe, the Martin report will confirm everything we already know, but tell us nothing that we don’t. And UNC can finally, and fully, move forward.