Back when he was still with us, I’d sometimes meet up with former North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano in Reynolds Coliseum for sit-downs dominated by manic laughter. But the one time V turned serious has always stuck with me—that day he delivered a rant about that rival school down Interstate 40. He groused that the local newspapers, notably the hometown Raleigh News and Observer, were populated by North Carolina journalism school grads. Everything at State was easy pickings, low-hanging fruit in the backyard. Chapel Hill, he said, might as well have been a million miles away.
If the past four years have shown us anything, it’s that those days are over. “The Carolina Way” is no longer shorthand for all that is admirable and salutary in college sports.
But say this for North Carolina: The Tar Heels have flogged themselves in the public square. Yes, the school had its hand forced. But by launching probe after probe to figure out what went wrong, the university has in a roundabout way told the world that yes, we are still different.
At least three times the university has looked into laughably lax “paper classes” to which athletes were steered. It has been an exercise in public proctology unimaginable at Auburn in the Cam Newton case, or Florida State with Jameis Winston, or just about any other state school with skin in the athletics game. And it reached its zenith Wednesday afternoon during a press conference at which both UNC system president Tim Ross and Chapel Hill chancellor Carol Folt praised a report by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein that led Ross to say, “I believe we now know all we’ll know about what happened and how it happened.”
We’ll see about that claim. But it is a report to trump all previous reports—a 131-pager that reflects 126 interviews and 1.6 million documents, including student transcripts and papers dating back to the 1980s. “This scheme,” as Wainstein called the fraud, centered around two employees in the Department of African-American Studies: a longtime administrative aide named Deborah Crowder and a professor, Julius Nyang’oro, who became the department’s chair in 1992. With Nyang’oro exercising little oversight, Crowder gamed the legitimate option of independent study, steering athletes to so-called “paper classes” that involved no lectures, note-taking or conferences and only a single research paper for credit. Whereupon she—not a professor—would hand out grades, almost universally A’s and B-pluses, often without even giving the paper a read. Sometimes counselors in the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes (ASPSA) suggested to her grades that the athlete needed to remain eligible, and she obliged.
Crowder and Nyang’oro had been facing criminal charges, and with the help of North Carolina’s State Bureau of Investigation and the Orange County district attorney’s office, Wainstein and his team were able to interview both. The report was particularly harsh on the Tar Heels’ football program, telling of ASPSA counselors assigned to the team who in the late 2000s urged players to turn in as many papers, and load up on as many Afro-American studies classes, as possible before Crowder retired.
The Wainstein Report fingers no coaches. Chancellor Folt said that shows that none of them were involved. In fact, it fails to show that any were. And the probe brought no clarity to the charges of former Tar Heel basketball player Rashad McCants, who told ESPN that academic advisors wrote papers for himself and others and that head coach Roy Williams knew it, charges Williams has adamantly denied and which Wainstein said he found no evidence of. “We would have been very interested to talk to him,” Wainstein said of McCants. “He didn’t speak to us. He didn’t give us evidence, so there’s no evidence.”
If there’s Schadenfreude around the ACC today, it’s because Carolina has long kept its high horse tethered close at hand. But reactions to scandal in college sports usually make a mockery of the trope that schools are good-faith partners of the NCAA’s effort to get at the truth. Wagons get circled, spinmeisters summoned and reporters and whistleblowers attacked. Carolina has done as good a job resisting that reflex as any big-time school in decades. Websites, like carolinacommitment.unc.edu, which has details on the many changes the University will undergo in the wake of the Wainstein Report, and another that launched today with supporting documents from the report, are part of that effort. So is an initiative to ensure that anyone who starts as a Carolina athlete will have the scholarship support to complete a degree.
North Carolina began its first investigation a year before the Penn State scandal hit the headlines. As Wainstein joined administrators before the dais today, the Nittany Lions’ NCAA sanctions have long since been reduced. In other words, in the time it took for the Jerry Sandusky scandal to come and go, the “Paper Classes” Affair still hasn’t played completely out.
Thus, in Chapel Hill, it has been a quadrennium of what Pharrell Williams would call “bad news talking this ’n’ that.” Folt ordered up the Wainstein Report, she said, so “we wouldn’t have to do this again and again.” Yet this saga, which began with an innocent tweet by former Tar Heel football player Marvin Austin from a Miami nightclub in 2010, still sits somewhere short of a resolution. University officials said this afternoon that the latest report will lead to a series of changes, including an audit of institutional policy to ensure such mistakes aren’t repeated. The NCAA is yet to weigh in with its own probe, which had been reopened after McCants made his allegations; perhaps its investigators will make a more strenuous effort to sit the former Tar Heel guard down.
If they succeed, four years will surely turn into five or more. And contrary to what President Ross said, there’ll be more to weigh “about what happened and how.”