This Case Was One For The Books

Jan Kemp won $2.58 million in a suit that bared academic abuses involving the athletes at Georgia
February 24, 1986

She does not appear, sitting calmly in her living room in the gray light of a Georgia afternoon, anything like the roguish, steel-willed character depicted in the trial testimony the last six weeks. Nor, as she arranges herself in an easy chair by the front window of her home in Acworth, Ga., near Atlanta, does she betray any bitterness over the ordeal to which the University of Georgia subjected her.

Only once in a while, as when she talks about her two suicide attempts, or her refusal to breast-feed her infant son because she thought her milk was poison, does she reveal any of the turbulence of her life over the last four years. Her eyes fill and her voice begins to quiver, but then she takes a breath and draws on her Satin cigarette.

"On August 3, 1982, I stabbed myself in the chest with a butcher knife," Jan Kemp says. "But I lived through that. A month later, on September 3, I took an overdose of Haldol, an antipsychotic drug, but I have such a strong constitution that it didn't kill me. I had planned to commit suicide in the spring, but I was pregnant and I didn't want to harm the baby. I thought I was doing the right thing. I had become a burden to my family. I couldn't function. I was not able to do the laundry, cook a meal, read or write. I was teaching, at the time, on automatic. I never smiled. I had no personality. I couldn't see. I couldn't walk. I couldn't even understand a joke in the Reader's Digest."

To be sure, there was nothing even remotely laughable about the fact that Jan Kemp, coordinator of the English section of Georgia's Developmental Studies Program, was demoted to and subsequently dismissed from the post of remedial English teacher for speaking out against preferential academic treatment accorded athletes at the university. Or her subsequent attempts at suicide. Or her two stays in the Peachford Hospital in Atlanta. Or the lawsuit she filed challenging her demotion and firing on the grounds that the institution had violated her First Amendment right of free speech. Or all those degrading characterizations she heard people make on the witness stand in describing her, though she rather liked a journalist referring to her in print as another "Iron Magnolia," citing Rosalynn Carter's nickname.

Speaking in a voice borne along on the soft southerlies of an accent acquired in her hometown of Griffin—a languid town 35 miles south of Atlanta—she says that she is nothing like the way she was portrayed during the trial. "I'm basically a shy person," Kemp says, "but I will summon up the courage to speak out against anything that is immoral, unethical or illegal. I mean, they tried to portray me as an ogre. I admitted to being disruptive, but I said it was high time somebody was disruptive with all the corruption going on. But I was never loud. I was never profane. Let's see. All the words they used. I was never combative, arrogant, intimidating or aggressive. I'm none of those things. I'm assertive. I'm...."

But wait a minute here. Come to think of it, she concedes, there is something more than vaguely imposing about her classroom presence. "I don't have the kind of personality that lends itself to being challenged," she says. "I'm very businesslike in the classroom, and I think that some of the Bulldog athletes were intimidated by me. I'm 6'2½" and taller than most of them, for one thing, and I'm every bit as tough."

To its unending chagrin and dismay, the university quickly learned just how tough and resilient this Phi Beta Kappa with three degrees from Georgia—one of them a doctorate in English education—could be. Last week, at the end of a six-week trial during which she asked the jury of five women and one man—four blacks and two whites—for damages of more than $100,000, she and everyone else in the federal courtroom sat in stunned disbelief when the verdict was announced. The indignant jurors found on her behalf and awarded her a staggering $2,579,681.95. The breakdown: $1.5 million in punitive damages from the school's vice-president for academic affairs, Virginia Trotter; $800,000 in punitive damages from Trotter's assistant, Leroy Ervin, for whom Kemp worked and by whom she was fired; $79,680.95 in lost wages; $200,000 in compensatory damages for mental distress; and one dollar for the harm to her professional reputation. At the announcement of the judgment, Trotter's chin dropped and she was seen mouthing the words: "One point five million dollars?"

"We wanted to make a slap on the hand where they're going to feel it," said Melanie Mims, the 22-year-old jury forewoman. "There are Trotters and Ervins everywhere. There are Jan Kemps at a lot of schools."

The size of the award provoked cries of anguish among some state officials. "Good God!" blurted Georgia House Speaker Tom Murphy on hearing the news. Gov. Joe Frank Harris, shaken, said simply, "It's a little excessive, unbelievable really."

By the time the jury had reached its verdict, however, the only things patently excessive were a) the ineptness of the university's presentation of its case, and b) the cynical attitude of some of its leading administrators toward what Kemp termed the university's "exploitation" of its athletes, particularly the black ones, in its use of the remedial learning program to get them into school and keep them eligible for sports.

Cynical is a barely adequate word to describe the comments of Ervin, the head of the remedial learning program and an assistant university vice-president. In the course of the trial, a transcript of a secretly taped meeting of school officials was introduced, revealing that Ervin, who is black, had made the following statement—out of "frustration," he says—regarding the poor educational backgrounds of some of the black athletes in the remedial program:

"Now, you talk about [how] these kids are not taught in high school. They aren't. We try to teach them here, but there is no way to do it. The majority of these kids are black that are coming in, and it kind of rips in at me at the insides, and I take it very, very personal. I know for a fact that these kids would not be here if it were not for their utility to the institution. There is no real sound academic reason for their being here other than to be utilized to produce income. They are used as a kind of raw material in the production of some goods to be sold...and they get nothing in return...."

By the time those remarks became known, however, the university's case had already been seriously compromised. There are three bulldogs, former mascots of the school, buried behind one end zone at Georgia's Sanford Stadium. Joining them there, in a fourth grave, ought to be the opening argument as uttered for the ages by Hale Almand, the attorney for Ervin and Trotter. While conceding that, indeed, the university does give preferential treatment to athletes and that, to be sure, Kemp is a good teacher, Almand wrote the epitaph for his case by also saying, of the typical educationally deficient jock: "We may not make a university student out of him, but if we can teach him to read and write, maybe he can work at the post office rather than as a garbage man when he gets through with his athletic career."

University officials understandably blanched at that. Vince Dooley, the football coach and athletic director, said, "I told him [Almand] that was a terrible statement. He couldn't have done a worse thing." But matters did get worse. As a poignant footnote to Almand's statement, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution reported that Landy Ewings, a black football player who had gone through the remedial program and had dropped out of Georgia in 1983 after three years at the school, had taken a job working on a garbage truck in Athens, the university's hometown.

With the trial providing a continuing source of embarrassment to the university, 200 students calling themselves Students Against Campus Corruption and advocating the firing of Trotter and Ervin held a peaceful rally on Jan. 27. As the demonstrators exercised their right of free speech, a campus policeman ran around taking pictures of them. The police said the photographs were being taken "for our annual report."

Kemp, who has two children and whose husband Bill is a high school teacher, was hired by Georgia as the coordinator of the English section of the Developmental Studies Program in September 1978. The program is a well-intentioned outgrowth of affirmative action policies designed to make a university education available to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Athletes comprise 17% of the program's current enrollment of about 335 students. The courses, designed to teach basic skills such as reading and writing to sometimes functionally illiterate students, do not count for credits toward a degree. Students ordinarily have four chances to pass each remedial course. If they achieve a C or better and pass a basic skills test, they are allowed to enroll in regular university courses. If they fail after four attempts, they are supposed to be dismissed from the university.

Kemp testified that she came into conflict with Ervin on three occasions, but Ervin denied it. She said that in 1981, Ervin asked her to tell an English teacher in another section to change the grades of six athletes from F to incomplete. She contended that Ervin then confronted her and berated her for refusing. "He told me he was extremely upset they had failed," Kemp testified. "He paced the floor and flailed his arms and said, 'We just can't have this.' " At one point, Kemp said, Ervin told her, "Who do you think is more important to this university, you or a very prominent basketball player?"

On another occasion, Kemp said, she had decided to press charges with the student judiciary against the son of a heavy contributor to the university after the student had called her late one night and railed at her, using profanity. She testified that she told Ervin and that, "For the next two or three weeks, Dr. Ervin harassed me endlessly, trying to get me to drop the charges. He told me how important the student was to the university." The student was found guilty and sentenced to 10 hours of public service, but the university president suspended the punishment.

The conflict came to a head in December 1981 when Trotter, a former assistant secretary for education in the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, allowed nine football players to "exit" from the remedial learning program to the university curriculum, despite the fact that they had all failed their fourth and final quarter in English. The players went on to play in the 1982 Sugar Bowl, but in a position paper the athletic department said there was no wrongdoing. Trotter, a former home economics professor, admitted in court that athletes received preferential treatment at the university, but defended her action on promoting the nine students. "I felt they deserved an opportunity because of the work they had done," Trotter testified. "I felt they had made great progress."

Kemp, who regularly attended Georgia games, vociferously protested the decision. "I thought it was important for a student to realize that if he did not try, then he could not remain at the university [of Georgia]," she said. What troubled her, she said, was that the athletes were getting the message that they did not have to work for their promotions.

"I feared they wouldn't do anything from then on out," she said, "because they [administrators] had practically announced to them, 'You don't have to do the work. You'll be taken care of.' " What particularly galled her at the same time, she said, was that a failing nonathlete had been dismissed from the university. At a pretrial hearing in 1983, Trotter, in trying to justify the promotion of the nine students, made what has become an oft-quoted remark: "I would rather err on the side of making a mistake."

Kemp prepared a formal letter of protest on the promotion of the nine athletes, but never sent it. Two days after she wrote it, on Feb. 3, 1982, Ervin demoted her from coordinator of the English program to teacher. That April, she says, she began suffering severe depression after she learned that her students were being approached to write letters against her and that her supporters on the faculty were being harassed. She was fired that August. After the two suicide attempts and her final release from the hospital in October, she consulted with her mother, Margie Hammock, and decided to fight her demotion and dismissal in court.

What surfaced during the trial drew a wide range of reaction. Harry Edwards, the black sociologist at the University of California who for years has decried the exploitation of the black athlete, said, "The Kemp case is only a tiny step forward because the practice continues of recruiting athletes on one dimension only: Can they play ball? The academic dimension is almost overlooked.... I'm very happy for her [Kemp] because of what she went through. I see everywhere university people scared to speak up...." Of Almand's memorable remark about prospective garbage collectors working their way up to postal workers, Edwards said, "The fraud continues. To be honest, Georgia should give a course with major credits in sorting mail."

Julian Bond, the black state senator from Atlanta, said, "It's just pathetic, awful, that athletes are discriminated against at Georgia. They're denied an equal education. They're kept from competition in the classroom so they can compete on the playing field, and the time has long passed when something has got to be done." Bond recognizes, however, that the problem really stems from inadequate education at the elementary and high school levels. "We're not preparing our children to get college educations," Bond says.

The trial brought to light the fact that the Georgia school systems produce gifted athletes who graduate from high school barely able to read or spell. If they have a 2.0 average and can run a whole lot faster than they read, they are candidates for athletic scholarships.

Dooley, once the chairman of the American Football Coaches Association's Ethics Committee, admitted during the trial that, "Because of the similar approaches by other institutions, we were placed in a position of offering scholarship aid to student-athletes who were very, very poorly academically prepared. It became obvious that we had to take some numbers that were high risk." In other words everybody else was doing it so Georgia had to do it, too.

Georgia president Fred Davison similarly tried to justify the university's recruitment practices by saying, "We have to compete [with rival schools] on a level playing field." Referring to Georgia athletes, Davison also said: "If they leave us being able to read, write, communicate better, we simply have not done them any damage."

Davison, whose dismissal was called for Sunday in an editorial in the Athens Banner-Herald/The Daily News, testified that it was theoretically possible to offer scholarships to revenue-producing athletes—i.e., football and basketball players—even if they achieved a minimum 400 score on their SAT tests, while non-revenue-producing athletes had to score at least 650. Asked if the standards were lower for revenue-producing athletes because they made money for the school, Davison said, "If you want to ask me if they have utilitarian effect to the university, certainly they do."

What do some other college sports officials think about the Georgia case? Gene Corrigan, the director of athletics at Notre Dame, said, "I just don't want to sound holier than thou. What I'm saying is that there might be 50 or 60 other schools that could make the same claim as Georgia." Doug Single, the AD at Northwestern, suggested that schools with high academic standards should schedule each other and not worry about playing schools with lower priorities.

Davison, who brought a number of coaches and educators together in 1982 to try to improve national academic standards for incoming athletes, also testified that Georgia supported tougher NCAA admissions policies that will begin to take effect in September, but that the school "would not unilaterally disarm.... One institution in our community can't drop out and survive." This from the president of a school that graduated only 16 of 66 black football players since the team integrated in 1971.

Georgia math education professor Ed Davis, who monitored the trial for the American Association of University Professors, deplored the policy of admitting the ill-equipped in the first place: "It's too much to ask. When they realize they're not going to make it, it's a very negative experience.... I think the sense among teachers, on Jan Kemp's victory, is that a teacher spoke out on academic values, and she won against the big administrative figures. It might give some leverage to bring about reforms."

Duke University law professor John Weistart, who specializes in sports-related issues, found considerable significance in the size of the jury's award. "The award is, at first blush, legally off the wall," Weistart said. "But in fact it's a readily explainable reaction. The jury was reacting to the hypocrisy of the Georgia program. They [the university officials] said they were doing something, and in fact they were doing something else. Davison, in particular, said he was only responding to a national mandate to increase educational opportunities for poor blacks. But he also said the school decided that only in the revenue-producing sports would they consider awarding financial aid to a student who scored below 650 on the SATs. He's not providing educational opportunities. He's providing revenue to the University of Georgia. My guess is that the jury listened to that testimony, then heard the Georgia program made $4.3 million last year, and said, 'What's going on?' And they returned an award based on anger and frustration."

As of Sunday, the university had not decided whether it would appeal. In the meantime, although it was reform, not money, that Kemp said she was hoping for, she was understandably delighted with the award. She is almost sure to get a book and a movie out of it all, but says that the whole effort will have been wasted if the system that compelled it is not changed.

"All I wanted in terms of money was to pay my attorneys and get out of debt," she says. "I want to make it clear I didn't do this for the money. If it doesn't cause reforms nationwide, it's all been for nothing. I hope athletic directors will realize they can no longer exploit athletes. Athletes are being harmed; they're not better off. They come in expecting to make the pros and earn a diploma. Most of them do neither."

Jan Kemp paused in that gray Georgia light, this rangy Southern woman with the soft voice and the quiver in her words. She said, "Did you notice that the verdict came down on Lincoln's birthday? I don't know if it's symbolic or not, but he freed the slaves and that's what I'm trying to do, too."

PHOTOMANNY RUBIOKemp says she's still an avid Bulldog booster, and her earrings seem to bear her out. PHOTOMANNY RUBIO PHOTOELLEN FITZGERALD/ATHENS NEWSPAPERSSome students took the academic issues seriously. TWO PHOTOSMANNY RUBIOTrotter said she "would rather err on the side of making a mistake"; Ervin demoted and later fired the outspoken Kemp. PHOTOELLEN FITZGERALD/ATHENS NEWSPAPERSDavison (above left, with ex-Bulldog Fran Tarkenton) and Dooley are now under fire. PHOTOMANNY RUBIO[See caption above.] PHOTOMANNY RUBIOAfter consulting with her mother, Kemp decided to be a Bulldog and fight for her rights.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
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