UNC’s Athletic Scandal Is Far From OverPosted by Chris Johnson on June 10th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Job resignations don’t get more prescient than former UNC chancellor Holden Thorp’s decision last week to leave the school for the smaller and less hectic D-III pastures of Washington University in Saint Louis. Thorp’s stated reason for leaving – that the burden of making crucial decisions about a major college athletics program, lopped on top of his educational and administrative responsibilities, had worn Thorp thin over the past three years – is the perfect precursor for the recent news surrounding the Tar Heels’ athletic program. The academic scandal that surfaced last year to widespread dismay and doomsday-forecasting, then faded from the national spotlight, appears to have turned a resentfully bleak corner. A public records request from the Raleigh News & Observer issued last year, around the time of the initial reports of academic malfeasance within UNC’s athletic department, was granted just this month, and the findings only further validate Thorp’s clairvoyant departure. Emails between Tar Heels’ athletic-academic officials and Julius Nyang’oro – the former head of the former, erm, extinct African-American Studies department that allegedly greased the rails for scores of athletes (including football, and possibly men’s basketball, players) to stay eligible through fraudulent, or even non-existent, classes – turned up evidence of even greater systemic failures than we might have initially thought. The details aren’t pretty. This exchange between former football academic coordinator Cynthia Reynolds and Nyang’oro offers a window into the sort of deep institutional collusion UNC potentially left unmonitored within its athletic department.
In one email from September 2009, Cynthia Reynolds, a former associate director who oversaw academic support for football players, told Nyang’oro in an email that “I hear you are doing me a big favor this semester and that I should be bringing you lots of gifts and cash???????”
When allegations of academic propriety were first brought to the fore, reaction was critical and uncompromising. All the signs of a collectively coordinated academic fraud were plain: shoddy transcripts, rinky-dink classes, a rogue department head with a dubious academic track record. Slowly but surely, the whole thing poofed into a cloud of oblivion. Nothing to see here, folks. We’ve got this under control. The media heat may have cooled, and powerful interweb columnists may have loosened their clench on UNC’s academic reputation, but the actual evidence never disappeared. Julius Peppers’ specious and internet-leaked transcript was still lying around on some investigator’s desk. The African-American Studies department’s comically easy jock classes did take place. Holden Thorp bolted the premises for a reason. The condemning evidence never went away, and now, after a year’s delay, when the dust had cleared and UNC athletics had emerged from the foreboding smog of NCAA sanctions and leaky academic oversight, the forgotten demons are reappearing.
The optics would make any athletic department official, or UNC fan, shudder. If the NCAA finds punishable transgressions – coordinated exchanges of gifts and cash for athlete eligibility, to start – the end result could be one of the most heinous failures of academic and athletic leadership college sports has ever seen. Enabling not just one or two classes, but an entire athletic department to funnel football and men’s basketball players through bogus classes, while members of both the academic and athletic apartment sat idly by and counted championship rings, sounds like something Mark Emmert and the folks in Indianapolis might want to have a look at (and when I say “look”, I mean, planet-vaporizing solar flare). Just a guess.
If it ever seemed suspicious, or just sort of weird, that Thorp would abandon one of the nation’s most esteemed athletic-academic institutions in Division I for a similar position at a school most college sports’ fans would presume to exist somewhere near the northwestern-most state in the continental USA, the timing of his move should offer a pretty good idea. The philosophical motivation for his exit is completely reasonable, and a stance I vigorously embrace. Transacted in concert with this latest news, right as his former program’s long-forgotten athletics scandal was waffling into the depths of public negligence, Thorp comes off looking like an absolute genius. He couldn’t have left his post at a more convenient time.