UNC Beat: Time to Come Clean

Like many mediocre writing samples, this one begins with an anecdote.  I was walking from a football game on November 13, 2010 between North Carolina and Virginia Tech at Kenan Stadium to my dorm room on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.  The Hokies won that game 26-10, thanks in no small part to six Tar Heel turnovers.

As I was walking, I heard a voice behind me, “You know it would have been different if we had our players.” I turned, and saw a UNC fan addressing a Virginia Tech fan.  At first, the Hokie was puzzled. He hadn’t done anything to draw attention to himself here, as far as I know. Maybe he smiled wrong or something.  Ultimately, he elected to ignore the Tar Heel.

“You heard me,” was the response.  “You guys would have had no chance if we had all of our players.”

The Hokie grinned wryly, “You don’t want me to actually go there, do you?”

“You know I’m telling the truth.  You guys ain’t that good.” (It’s probably worth noting in hindsight that Virginia Tech was at least good enough to win the Atlantic Coast Conference that season.)

“Well, it’s not OUR fault your guys got suspended for breaking NCAA rules, now is it?”

This was the part where embarrassed wives stepped in before things got out of hand.  All I could do was chuckle. It was hard to argue with the Virginia Tech fan.  As much as I would have liked to believe Greg Little, Robert Quinn, or Marvin Austin would have altered the course of that game, there are obvious reasons why they didn’t.

Two years later, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is still sloshing its way through academic scandal, and it is only getting harder to defend.

It’s not because of the notion that athletes likely received a less than stellar education from “The University of the People.”  Most rational fans of college athletics would probably agree, for better or worse, that this is a systemic issue across major sports.  There is too much pressure on athletes to maintain NCAA eligibility (and bring financial benefits to their schools) to not do everything possible to keep star athletes on the field, sometimes at the expense of morality or legislation.

It’s not because the athletes, often little more than pawns in this expensive chess game, decided to cash in with benefits from agents, accepting gifts of eyebrow-raising value when institutions are neither permitted nor particularly willing to repay these athletes for their contributions to university bottom lines.

These are not UNC issues.  These are issues surrounding big-money college athletics.  Dropping the NCAA hammer on North Carolina, Penn State, Miami, Ohio State, or whoever enters the microscope next will not change that.  No amount of overly moralistic shouting from sportswriters without actual solutions will change that.  Adjusting that landscape would require major reform towards pre-professional athletics, like adopting the European model of club sports or removing amateurism in college athletics.

The fact that, two years later, UNC is still fighting this issue is a bit much to swallow, though.  Every effort to move forward has been met with two leaps backward, and this weekend was just another example.

This spring should have treated all the wounds.  There’s a new athletic director, a new football coach, and new leadership in the African and Afro-American Studies program that has garnered so much undesired attention for the university.  Yet here we are, two and a half weeks away from North Carolina kicking off their season against the Elon Phoenix, talking about everything but this year’s team.

Follow Zach Evans on Twitter

In the past weeks, several members of the national media have called for the NCAA to return to Chapel Hill, in light of an internal investigation that unveiled more than 50 suspect classes, unauthorized grade changes, and other instances of academic fraud.

That was before Sunday night, when a user at the PackPride message board for N.C. State athletics using the handle “manalishi” shared what appears to have been a transcript of former football and basketball player Julius Peppers, floating unprotected on a UNC server. (The university won’t confirm it was Peppers’ course records, citing student privacy law.)  To summarize the transcript, eligibility was maintained almost strictly through a large number of AFAM courses, especially independent study courses during the summer like those outlined in the internal investigation that drew headlines in May.

It is a large jump to assume that this transcript is stone-cold proof that there was a culture of funneling athletes into fraudulent classes as far back as Peppers’ arrival in Chapel Hill in 1998, but it certainly does nothing to disprove the notion.  Either way, it is yet another blow to an institution that has been pummeled recently … and could have been out of the woods.

Indeed, if UNC-CH had been more forthright in baring its faults and flaws at any point during the past two years, we probably do not reach this point.  Instead, by trying to contain the issue to football, or to a four-year time frame, or to one or two “rogue” faculty members, the damage has continued to mount with every passing news report and forum discovery.

So, for a third season, Tar Heel football will be overshadowed by off-field developments, developments that, hopefully, have little to nothing to do with this season’s squad.  Seniors on this year’s roster will have largely been passengers for the entire circus.  In October of 2009, during their freshman season, North Carolina hosted Florida State in a Thursday Night contest televised nationally.  The Tar Heels lost that game 30-27, despite leading 24-6 at one point, but it appeared to be proof that they were on the cusp of national acclaim.

During their senior season, they will not play for a conference championship or travel to a bowl game, regardless of their record. They will not be recognized often enough for any accomplishments on the field, playing for their third head coach in four years, because the spotlight will instead shine on the shameful academic issues that have been unearthed during their stay.  Academic issues that, Sunday evening’s revelations would indicate, potentially could and should have been resolved long before Butch Davis ever called their homes as high schoolers.

The time for defense and containment is over.  It is time to come clean, expose any remaining skeletons in the proverbial closet, and put this ugly chapter in the books once and for all.


Zach Evans is a student at the University of North Carolina and a lifelong fan of the Tar Heels and follower of the ACC.  Outside of the ACC, Zach is also a fan of the Atlanta Braves, the Carolina Hurricanes, the Carolina Panthers, and bad puns. He includes nailing the Final Four in his 2009 NCAA Tournament group and batting .000 during the 2011 intramural softball season among his crowning achievements.  For more commentary, follow Zach on Twitter at @ztevans.

Follow Inside the ACC on Twitter at @InsideTheACC.  Get your ACC links at ITA’s NewsLink Twitter feed at @ITA_NewsLink.

Get the conversation going on our Inside the ACC Forums.

Leave a Reply