There was an emergency in the North Carolina football program in the summer 2009.
Deborah Crowder, architect of a massive and long-lasting academic sham, was retiring. Before she left the school, the Tar Heels needed her for one more round of bailouts.
As a member of the academic support staff urgently emailed a director of football operations: "Ms. Crowder is retiring at the end of July . . . if the guys papers are not in . . . I would expect D's or C's at best. Most need better than that . . . ALL WORK FROM THE AFAM DEPT. MUST BE DONE AND TURNED IN ON THE LAST DAY OF CLASS."
The players in question needed A's and B's from Crowder in African and Afro-American Studies classes in order to be eligible to play for the Tar Heels. And that's what she was there to provide in exchange for little or no work – year after year, player after player, for football and basketball and other sports as well. Regular students also benefited from a scheme that disgraces a once-proud university, but athletes flocked to her no-show classes in disproportionate numbers.
That email was part of a 131-page report spearheaded by independent investigator Kenneth Wainstein of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP that was released by UNC on Wednesday. The report laid bare North Carolina's abdication of academic integrity in order to serve up easy grades that kept athletes eligible and on track to graduate.
For years, as the revelations accumulated and no fewer than six other reports were filed, North Carolina refused to look honestly at itself and acknowledge what it saw.
Today, the school can squirm away from the truth no more. Wainstein's report provided a devastating house of mirrors for UNC to gaze into. The loud-and-proud claims to being a special place, capable of both athletic and academic success without cutting corners, are now hollow.
North Carolina spent many years operating like a lowest-common-denominator football/basketball factory. Regardless of whatever else comes from this thorough and painstaking investigation, that label sticks.
The level of academic fraud exposed is staggering: 3,100 students benefitted from the AFAM class scam; of that number, more than 47 percent were athletes – disproportionately high for the student population as a whole. And of that 47 percent, more than half were football players. Men's basketball made up 12 percent of the athlete population that was given gift grades.
The report finds it believable that neither basketball coach Roy Williams nor then-football coach Butch Davis knew the extent of the AFAM scam – specifically, that players were getting gift grades. However, Davis was said to be present during a 2009 power-point presentation by academic support staff to the football staff that included a slide saying that players had been enrolled in classes which featured the following perks: "they didn't go to class; didn't take notes, have to stay awake; they didn't have to meet with professors; they didn't have to pay attention or necessarily engage with the material." (Butch told investigators that he didn't recall seeing that slide. If the current ESPN analyst ever works in college coaching again, someone please shut down the university that hires him.)
Should a coach know what classes his players are taking? I don't know. My son is a student-athlete at Missouri and I'd bet his coaches know his major, but not his specific course load. Then again, he's not an eligibility risk, nor is he vital to a coach maintaining a seven-figure salary. The star football and basketball players are.
But the deniability of Williams and Davis is largely immaterial. Their programs thrived thanks to athletes who couldn't or wouldn't do the work of most normal students. If those Tar Heels who were winning national titles in basketball and going to bowl games in football took anything educational away from their time in Chapel Hill, chances are decent that it was an "A" in a Swahili class that never met. That's something to be proud of.
As UNC wallows in the shame of this scandal, the next question is whether Wainstein has given the NCAA enough ammunition to aim and fire at the school.
The governing body of college sports took its sweet time launching its own investigation of UNC, to the frustration of many. For years, the stated reason for inaction was that the academic benefits enjoyed by the athletes also was perfectly available to the student body as a whole, and thus not a violation of NCAA rules.
It's true that more than 1,500 regular students did benefit from no-show classes, per the report. But if nearly an equal number of athletes were involved in flagrant academic fraud that resulted in a clear competitive advantage – stars were eligible to play, and to beat the pants off opposing teams – then this would seem to be a case where the NCAA should intercede.
If the association's baroque and bewildering rules manual prevents it, well, shame on the NCAA. It would be one more example of why it is a failed investigative force.
We can wait and see what results come from Indianapolis, but don't hold your breath in anticipation of a deathblow for Carolina – especially Carolina basketball.
If anything, the school should react on its own to this report. Don't wait for the NCAA to step in, do something yourself.
Now that UNC knows the independently reported facts, it can act. For years, its championship basketball teams were populated by players who benefitted from academic fraud – the 2005 national title team alone had 10 AFAM majors. If those titles were won with players who wouldn't have been eligible without sham grades, take down the banners yourself. Take the hardware out of the trophy cases. Wear your shame.
For a school that long proclaimed to be a special place, that would be a start on restoring its integrity.