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Searching for answer to key question in UNC scandal: Why did it start?

Searching for the answer to the question behind the North Carolina academic-athletic scandal: Why did it all begin?

When Kenneth Wainstein was tasked with conducting an independent investigation of the North Carolina academic scandal, it meant posing a welter of questions. How did this deception go unchecked for nearly 20 years? How did more than 3,000 UNC undergrads—nearly half of them athletes; most concentrated in the revenue sports—glide through non-existent courses without raising concerns? How were there no safeguards? What did other university officials both inside and outside the athletic department know? What was blindness, and what was willful blindness?

On four separate occasions, Wainstein, a prominent Washington D.C. attorney and former federal prosecutor, interviewed Julius Nyang’oro, longtime chairman of the African-American studies department and a central perpetrator of the scheme. Wainstein’s many specific questions redounded to this: Why? Why risk your academic reputation over this? (Nyang’oro retired in disgrace in 2012.) Why risk criminal charges? (A local district attorney, James Woodall, charged Nyang’oro with fraud—a felony—in connection with the case; charges were dropped in exchange for his full cooperation with Wainstein’s investigation). Why deprive so many students of legitimate coursework and distort their GPAs? (The average grade in these phantom classes: 3.62)

When asked, Nyang’oro offered, what was, in effect, a motive to an academic crime. As Wainstein wrote in his 131-page report:

According to Nyang’oro, he had taught two student-athletes early in his career who were later forced to leave the school because they had become academically ineligible. One of those student-athletes was murdered shortly after returning to his rural hometown; the other soon got in legal trouble and wound up in jail. When he learned about their fates, Nyang’oro committed himself to preventing such tragedies in the future and to helping other struggling student-athletes to stay in school.”

Reading this, one could argue that there was almost noble intent here. It’s a common paradigm in college sports. Athletes—especially in football and basketball; disproportionately African-American—arrive on campus ill-prepared for college work. On top of that, they must meet the demands of playing a big-time sport. It can be overwhelming. Nyang’oro indicated that he was trying to counterbalance the stress and protect the athletes after seeing firsthand what can happen to those who are failed by the system.

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But who were these former college athletes whose poignant and tragic backstories had inspired Nyang’oro? In particular, who was the murdered player, the equivalent of Patient X, the subject who had catalyzed this entire scandal?

Wainstein tells SI that when he pressed Nyang’oro, the former professor was unable to offer specifics. (Unable to corroborate these claims, Wainstein says this is why he began the section “according to Nyang’oro.”) Nyang’oro mentioned that were football players and one had a connection to South Carolina. But that was it.

In conjunction with Fox Sports, we decided to look into this claim.

Per Nyang’oro’s curriculum vitae, UNC is the only school at which he taught. These two athletes had to be former Tar Heels. Yet UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham told SI that he has no knowledge of a UNC athlete who had been murdered. Nor did any other high-ranking UNC administrator.

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There was no public record either.

A senior UNC official provided us with the closest match they could find: Derrick Fenner. A star running back for the football team, he left UNC in 1986 due to academic issues, was charged with murder in his hometown and spent 44 days in jail, until the charges were dropped and he was exonerated. Soon after, Fenner was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks, where he began a respectable nine-year career in the NFL.

Thus Fenner might fit the description of the jailed student, even if it was only a brief stay behind bars and was followed up by a successful professional sports career. Not exactly a cautionary tale.

But who was the murdered student-athlete? The one who should be relatively easy to find? 

Early on, we got a name: Carl Smalls a member of the football team, until head coach John Bunting suspended him during the 2002 season for violating “team rules." During Smalls' suspension, he was shot and killed outside of a nightclub in his hometown. But Nyang’oro indicated this happened “early in his career.” This happened in 2002. That’s close to 20 years after Nyang’oro began his career, and almost a decade after the paper classes began in 1993.

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In his 2009 memoir Hard Work, UNC basketball coach Roy Williams recounts a similar story from his coaching days at Kansas about a troubled player, Sean Tunstall. During Williams’ first season in Lawrence, 1988-89, Tunstall was ruled ineligible as a freshman when the NCAA wouldn't verify his college board score. As a sophomore, Tunstall could practice but could not play in games. As a junior, he played a significant role on the Kansas team that reached the Final Four, making the game-clinching basket in the semifinal game against, ironically, North Carolina.

“The next year [Tunstall] was eligible, but I suspended him for the first semester because I didn’t like what he’d done academically,” wrote Williams. “I took basketball away from Sean. His grades got worse. He left school, got involved with drugs, and landed in jail. Shortly after Sean got out of jail, he was shot and killed in a drug deal gone bad.” This is almost the precise scenario Nyang’oro described to Wainstein. Except, of course, this was specific to Kansas.

Though the fraud charges against Nyang’oro were dropped in exchange for his testimony— Woodall said Nyang’oro provided “invaluable information that [investigators] could have gotten from no other source”—his testimony to Wainstein was not given under oath. And Woodall tells SI that even if Nyang’oro was found to be untruthful to Wainstein on this matter, it’s unlikely that criminal charges will be reopened since it’s not material to the greater fraud.

Nyang’oro may, of course, have an explanation. Early law school lesson: The absence of evidence doesn’t prove the evidence of absence. But Nyang’oro isn’t helping to clarify matters. Asked to provide specifics, he declined comment for this piece, as did his lawyers.

Which leaves us here: A murdered former player who allegedly inspired the long-running deception has yet to be identified. A university reels from a widespread scandal. And we’re still looking for the answer to this fundamental question: Why?