Olden Polynice, a 6'11" sophomore center for Virginia, suspected that Nov. 17 was going to be an excruciatingly long day, and it lived up to his fears. At 8 a.m. he appeared to defend himself at a secret trial before a jury of 12 fellow UVa students. He was charged with having plagiarized a paper, thus violating the university's 142-year-old honor code. If found guilty, he would be expelled.
As it turned out, after 20 hours of testimony and deliberation the jury found Polynice innocent. As is the custom, each member of the tribunal shook hands with the acquitted. All records were burned. The case was closed.
Then Polynice really went on trial.
Within hours someone who had participated in the trial broke the honor court's pledge of confidentiality and leaked details of the proceedings to the press. The reaction was fast and oh-so-furious. Critics assumed Polynice had received special treatment because he was a basketball player. Students lamented the damage supposedly done to the sacred honor code. Some wealthy alumni threatened to suspend their contributions to the school because Polynice had been let off. TRIAL OF EX-BRONX STAR A SHAM read a Dec. 3 headline in the New York Post. Before a 68-57 Virginia win at Virginia Military Institute the same night, the cadets stood and turned their backs on Polynice when he was introduced. Two evenings after that, at William & Mary, students waved "term papers" at him. Polynice didn't score from the field, and Virginia lost by a point. Polynice dreaded the reception he might get at Duke, whose fans are considered to be among the most insensitive in the ACC, on Dec. 8. He chose not to go there. On the eve of that game his girl friend delivered a letter to Cavalier coach Terry Holland. "I have to get away from everything for a few days to think and to make some decisions," Polynice wrote. "I hope you understand that I don't want to hurt the team or you in any way, but right now I need some time to myself."
December 24, 1984
Polynice disappeared, but the furor didn't. Without him, Virginia lost to the Blue Devils 78-65, and the rumors grew wild. One had him returning to his native Haiti. Another, published in the Post, had him transferring to Iona. Actually, Polynice never left Charlottesville, where last week he took his fall semester exams and commented on the controversy. "The press accounts don't bother me that much," he said. "They're doing their job. People's reactions bother me because they believe everything without knowing the facts."
The facts of the trial are these: The student jurors were obliged, under the honor code, to consider three aspects of his alleged offense—the act, its intent and the degree of reprehensibility involved. Polynice never denied the act. To pass a mandatory freshman English course last fall, he needed a C or better on seven of 11 themes. He received six such grades on the eight papers he submitted. Then, during the spring semester, in a special effort to get a passing mark, he handed in an additional theme, which he says had been "borrowed" from another student.
That brought up the matter of intent. Polynice pleaded that there had been an extenuating circumstance. It had been a pressure-filled time, he told the jurors, with the basketball team on its way to a 21-11 season that would culminate in a surprise appearance in the NCAA Final Four. The Cavalier coaches urged Polynice to turn in the extra paper, having been led to believe that he'd written it himself. After worrying for weeks, Polynice said, he submitted the plagiarized theme on March 2. Testifying in his player's behalf, Holland told the honor court that Polynice, "in his panic confused loyalty to the basketball team with loyalty to the university." Furthermore, Polynice had failed the English course. But because he'd passed all his others, the one failure had no effect on his eligibility. He retook, and passed, the English course this fall.
The last issue facing the court was the degree of reprehensibility in Polynice's act. Quite simply: Was Polynice's act reprehensible enough to warrant banishment from the university? At 4:15 a.m. on Nov. 18, the jurors decided it was not.
Once the existence of the trial and its outcome were leaked, the inevitable debate arose. Ironically, the Post "Sham" article described the controversy most succinctly: "What if Polynice couldn't dunk a basketball? What if he had been an average nobody? Would he still be in school?"
The answer to that last question is yes. Students at Virginia aren't eager to expel their peers. A nonathlete who embezzled $3,000 was found guilty in criminal court but innocent in Virginia's honor court. Another student turned in a paper that was a word-for-word copy of a TIME magazine article, explaining that it clearly reflected his own ideas. The honor court found him merely stupid, not duplicitous. Now add Polynice to the list of those the court has chosen not to punish. He says he bent under pressure and made "a mistake." The tribunal accepted that.
"A single-punishment penal system is very unusual," says John Weistart, a Duke law professor and coauthor of The Law of Sports. "Societies have generally decided that's a bad idea—they need judges accustomed to making hard choices that have dire consequences. At Virginia the jurors decided not to convict because they didn't want to impose the severe penalty. That's not wrong."
The fact is, if Polynice had been an average nobody, not a dunker of basketballs, not only would he still be in school, but he would also still be in possession of his privacy. Moreover, because he withdrew from the public eye as the debate about him continued, he has continually been misrepresented. He doesn't fit the dumb-jock stereotype that his critics have been quick to apply to him.
Polynice was born in Haiti in 1964 and moved to the Bronx when he was seven. The second of five children, he was a shy but affable youngster who adjusted well to his new surroundings. Without protest, he followed his parents' strict code of discipline. He came straight home from school each day and studied until bedtime. There was little socializing with other kids and definitely no hanging around the Bronx playgrounds. By the time he entered All Hallows High he was 6'4" and still hadn't played basketball. Then his schoolmates saw this giant of a kid walking the halls and coaxed him into trying out for the team.
In his first two high school seasons Polynice scored a total of 18 points. Those were years of learning, on and off the court. "He placed equal emphasis on academics and basketball," says his All Hallows coach, John Carey. "I think he was only absent two or three days his whole time here. No teachers ever came to me because he was having trouble."
By his junior year Polynice was a solid B-plus student and blossoming as a basketball player. He scored 1,053 points in his last two seasons and was All Hallows' captain and MVP as a senior. He was also named as one of five Athletes For Better Education/New York Knickerbocker Scholar Athletes. "He had an 88-plus average and had turned into a good player when we cited him," says AFBE's New York executive director, Rich Kosik. "But I'll tell you, I was more confident about him hacking it as a student at Virginia than I was about his basketball."
Polynice, who became a Cavalier starter by the fifth game last season, averaged 10.5 points and 5.6 rebounds over the final 11 games. He held Houston's Akeem Olajuwon to 12 points as Virginia nearly upset the Cougars in the NCAA semifinals. The on-court pressure led him to make the mistake with the paper—a 19-year-old freshman's mistake.
The initial sting is wearing off Polynice right now. "My frame of mind is good," he said last week. "I'm really happy I took this time off for my studies. When tests are over, I'm ready again for basketball." He expected to be in uniform for this Thursday's home game against Randolph-Macon and was hoping for a sympathetic reception from the fans. But he knows the stigma won't soon vanish. "In the ACC they pick on you whether they have reason to or not," he said. "I've got a motto for the rest of the year: DON'T LET THE BASTARDS GRIND YOU DOWN."