Early in the morning of April 6, 1993, I found myself standing among several thousand people in the middle of Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. We were all very drunk, incredibly happy, and extremely cold.
The party had started on Thursday and never really stopped, through the UNC-Chapel Hill men’s basketball team triumph over Kansas in the Louisiana Superdome on Saturday, into a series of boozy outdoor barbecues the next afternoon, and straight to the national championship game on Monday night, which the Tar Heels won after Michigan star Chris Webber tried to call a timeout his team did not have, down by two, with eleven seconds to go, putting a capstone on the career of legendary UNC coach Dean Smith. It was thirty-eight degrees and raining when the crowds poured onto the streets near campus and started lighting things on fire.
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The party had started on Thursday and never really stopped, through the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill men’s basketball team’s triumph over Kansas on Saturday, into a series of boozy outdoor barbecues the next afternoon, and straight to the national championship game on Monday night, which the Tar Heels won after the Michigan star Chris Webber tried to call a timeout his team did not have, down by two, with 11 seconds to go, putting a capstone on the career of the legendary UNC coach Dean Smith. It was 38 degrees and raining when the crowds poured onto the streets near campus and started lighting things on fire.
What almost nobody knew then was that the worst athletic and academic scandal in the proud almost-200-year history of the university had already begun to take root among the very players who had just won an incredible victory for the Carolina faithful. The corruption deepened over time, entangling thousands of students and scores of coaches, faculty members, and administrators, and would not be fully exposed until 21 years later, when an undergraduate named Andy Thomason was editor of the campus newspaper. In August, the University of Michigan Press published his book about what he learned then, and later: Discredited: The UNC Scandal and College Athletics’s Amateur Ideal.
Discredited is a tale of hypocrisy and disgrace, of lofty ideals revealed to be nothing but cover for exploitation. It is the story of both how the scandal happened and what the university did in response, which was to lie and betray and permanently stain itself, all to keep chasing the elusive high that I and all those delirious revelers felt so briefly and strongly, years ago.
It is also a preface to the accelerating disintegration of the so-called collegiate “student-athlete” ideal, a fiction in the midst of collapsing under the weight of money, corruption, and its own contradictions. If Discredited is any indication, the end can’t come soon enough.
We put them in classes that met degree requirements in which
- They didn’t go to class
- They 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
Much has been said and done since that day. It is important to remember that nobody from the University of North Carolina has ever disputed those assertions in any way.
The classes were officially taught by Julius Nyang’oro, chair of the university’s African and Afro-American-studies department (since renamed the department of African, African American, and diaspora studies). They were actually taught by no one, and were administered by the department secretary, Deborah Crowder. In exchange for an A or B to offset the much lower grades athletes often earned in real college courses, players were required to submit a 20-page paper to Crowder on a vaguely defined topic. Papers could be wildly off-topic, plagiarized, and/or written by academic counselors who would sometimes tell Crowder, a die-hard basketball fan, exactly what grade students needed to stay eligible.
The Carolina Way was just propaganda, weaponized as a recruiting tool.
Thomason, now an assistant managing editor at The Chronicle, describes late 2009 as a high point in the university’s history. The men’s basketball team had won the championship earlier that year under Dean Smith’s eventual successor, Roy Williams. Even the football team, usually an afterthought in hoops-crazed North Carolina, was suddenly good. UNC’s home-grown chancellor, Holden Thorp, had ascended to leadership a year earlier at the tender age of 43.
Thorp quickly bought into the “Carolina Way,” which was supposed to be a formula for achieving academic and athletic greatness at the same time. This amounts to a math problem: Athletic talent is evenly distributed across the population, while UNC admits only students from about the academic top 10 percent. That ought to make it impossible to compete with less selective universities — they can recruit 10 times as many great players, and you can only put five men on the hardwood at a time.
The Carolina Way was more audacious than a mere belief that UNC could defy the laws of statistics. The university claimed that it won championships by applying its exalted academic virtues on the playing fields. Dean Smith-coached teams were known for selflessness and delayed gratification, celebrating the extra pass and requiring freshmen to spend an apprentice year on the bench. Carolina told the world that it wasn’t just winning despite being a better university — it was winning because it was a better university.
If you spent any time listening to sports talk radio or playing pickup hoops in the 1980s and 1990s, you will know that these were highly racialized claims. Commentators would talk openly about how Black athletes were born with natural talents while white players won with hard work, teamwork, and discipline. This was the front-and-center text of that 1993 final-game clash. Michigan had made the men’s final the year before with an all-freshman starting roster of Black players who didn’t exhibit the requisite humility. When Chris Webber called that non-timeout, it was proof. No discipline! The good people, the deserving, prevail.
While nobody would say this outright, the Carolina Way was a claim that a white-led university with all the history of a centuries-old Southern institution could compete and win at the highest levels by enrolling Black students and civilizing them. People believed this because it was convenient, and because of how it positioned them in the system, and because Dean Smith himself had an impeccable personal history on civil-rights issues, particularly compared with his peers.
But it was a lie. The laws of statistics cannot be defied. The Carolina Way was just propaganda, weaponized as a recruiting tool — when wooing top talent, coaches would tell young men and women that only Carolina could give them a world-class education. When they arrived on campus, reality hit. They were segregated from other students, put to work in a full-time job (their sport), assigned a major not of their choosing, and enrolled in fake classes. As Rashad McCants, the star shooting guard on Carolina’s 2005 championship team, would later say, “When you get to college, you don’t go to class, you don’t do nothing, you just show up and play. … You’re not there to get an education, though they tell you that. … You’re there to make revenue for the college. You’re there to put fans in the seats. You’re there to bring prestige to the university by winning games.”
The scheme began to unravel in 2010 after a convoluted chain of events involving the NCAA’s launching an investigation after mistakenly believing that a football player tweeting rap lyrics was speaking literally, then discovering a bunch of legitimately inappropriate behavior. This led to suspensions, a player filing a lawsuit to appeal his suspension, and his submitting as public evidence on his own behalf a paper he had turned in to Deborah Crowder, which nobody at UNC realized was entirely plagiarized until a bunch of fans from rival North Carolina State had the bright idea of actually reading it and pasting a few paragraphs into Google. Dan Kane, an intrepid investigative reporter at the local newspaper, began filing public- records requests and asking impolite questions like: How did that player who tweeted the rap lyrics get a B+ in a special 400-level Afro-American-studies class taught by the department chair the summer before his freshman year?
Holden Thorp agreed to be interviewed for Thomason’s book, and mostly comes off well. He assumed the chancellorship in the final days of the paper-class conspiracy, was quick to notify the public and the NCAA, fired the football coach over the objections of fans and many UNC trustees, and announced his resignation in 2012 after only four years on the job, before the full scope of the scheme was even known. “He’d been taken in by the Carolina Way,” Thomason writes, “but now saw it was just a hallucination.”
UNC’s response to the NCAA charges is a far more damning indictment of the university than the Wainstein report itself.
Standard public-relations theory holds that if you do something terrible, you should admit everything yourself, all at once. This gives you a chance for initial spin, and, more importantly, forces the news cycle to digest the entire story immediately, so it can be replaced in a few days by something else. What you want to avoid at all costs is a drip-drip-drip of revelations over time that creates drama, suspense, and narrative momentum. Don’t, in other words, let the intrepid investigative reporter at the local newspaper become the screenwriter for a 50-episode series about your mistakes.
The university essentially followed this advice in reverse, stonewalling and denying and grudgingly acceding to a series of this-time-we’re-serious investigations, each more damaging than the last. The final report, led by the former federal prosecutor Kenneth L. Wainstein and released in 2014, estimated that over 3,100 students took one or more fake classes between 1993 and 2011. Nearly half were athletes, who make up only 4 percent of the undergraduate population.
Three thousand one hundred is an enormous quantity, yet according to the Wainstein report, it “very likely falls short of the true number.” That’s because there were two main kinds of fake classes — the so-called “paper classes” that involved sending 20 pages of anything to Deborah Crowder, and hundreds of fraudulent “independent study” courses that were nominally taught by Julius Nyang’oro. Because Nyang’oro could not precisely recall how many of the 2,090 independent studies he officially supervised between 1989 and 2011 were fraudulent — other than “most” of them — Wainstein settled on half.
Before the Wainstein report was published, the UNC historian Jay Smith and the athletic-counselor-turned-whistleblower Mary Willingham wrote their own damning book, Cheated: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-Time College Sports. They persuasively describe how specialized and demanding a single undergraduate independent-study course can be, and why in the years when Nyang’oro was allegedly supervising hundreds of them, the true fraud rate was almost surely close to 100 percent. The fake independent studies only subsided when a senior Chapel Hill administrator named Roberta (Bobbi) Owen was given irrefutable evidence of widespread fraud and told Nyang’oro, in so many words, “Can you do less fraud so it’s not as obvious? Thanks.”
Nyang’oro resigned under pressure in 2011 — amazingly, he continued offering no-show classes even after his former “students” landed in the NCAA cross hairs. Crowder had retired, Thorp had resigned, the football coach had been fired, and Roy Williams couldn’t be fired because the whole point of the excruciating, yearslong cover-up had been to preserve his job and the basketball championship banners he had won. This left a shortage of scapegoats to sacrifice.
Chapel Hill settled on firing Beth Bridger and Jaimie Lee for the crime of working exactly as expected inside a system that other people had designed, and for creating a PowerPoint slide that accurately described it. They fired Crowder’s successor as department secretary from a $32,000-per-year job for being in the office while other people defrauded the university. The only administrator to get the ax was Jan Boxill, whose reputation Thomason partially rehabilitates. Boxill was too candid in her emails with Crowder and had the four-alarm-irony-fire bad luck of being tarred by scandal while overseeing a center for ethics.
People can maintain a pretty elaborate suspension of disbelief when it comes to college sports, but there are limits.
At a news conference announcing Wainstein’s findings, Chancellor Folt suggested that the university hadn’t so much admitted drastically unprepared students and then enrolled them in fake classes as it had tragically underestimated their true potential. The ability to stand up in front of the bright lights and confidently say things that not one person on planet Earth believes to be true would serve Folt in good stead, because UNC still had one more problem to solve, the only one it had ever truly cared about: the NCAA.
The college-sports watchdogs had tried their hardest to avoid the scandal. When they uncovered early evidence of course fraud, they kept it quiet and asked the university to do the same — one of the biggest revelations in Thomason’s book. But national media coverage leading up to the Wainstein report forced the NCAA’s hand, which put the university in a tough spot. All of the evidence was in the report that it had just commissioned, endorsed, and used as a reason to fire people. But instead of pleading for leniency, UNC adopted the strategy of a mob boss whom everyone knows is guilty: Spend millions of dollars on shameless lawyers, and tell them to do whatever it takes to avoid the clink.
UNC’s response to the NCAA charges is a far more damning indictment of the university than the Wainstein report itself. The university begins by asserting that it did not violate the NCAA prohibition on providing “extra benefits” to athletes, because the fake courses were also taken by nonathletes, which is like arguing that you’re not guilty of selling heroin to 10th graders because you also sold heroin to eighth graders. Confronted with the fact that athletes received much higher average grades in fake classes than in real ones, the university strongly disputed the very idea of “averages” as a legitimate means of comparing the central tendency of two groups of numbers, asserting that “using an average merely means that some courses were above the average while others were below it.”
UNC also claimed that the NCAA had no jurisdiction over course fraud because that was an academic issue, and thus the responsibility of the university’s accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Like the NCAA, SACS made every attempt to avoid the scandal and stepped in only when it was embarrassing not to. While much was made of SACS putting UNC on “probation” for a year, everyone at the university and the accreditor understood that the state of North Carolina is more likely to secede from the Union in war and treason for a second time than a regional accreditor is to pull accreditation from a major public-research university.
The university argued that being put on fake probation meant that the problem had already been “addressed,” which is like arguing that a wrongful-death lawsuit against you should be thrown out of civil court because you’ve already pleaded guilty to first-degree murder. When the NCAA pointed out that, during the process of going through SACS motions, the university had admitted to “academic fraud,” UNC explained that the use of that phrase was a “typo.”
What did they mean to type, one wonders? Schmacademic fraud? Academic Freud? No matter, because the NCAA gave in. It was against the rules for an athletic department to defraud a university, they explained. It was not against the rules for a university to defraud itself. The case was closed, and the championship banners remained above the basketball court, hanging from the rafters of the Dean Smith Center.
The bedrock tragedy of the UNC affair is that so many athletes were promised a better education and got a worse one instead.
And it was no surprise when, soon after, a university looking for someone willing to brazen through a series of scandals, including covered-up sexual assault, a meth-smoking dean, admissions slots auctioned on the black market, and another dean under federal indictment for bribery knew exactly where to find her. In 2019, Carol Folt became president of the University of Southern California.
Notably, Nyang’oro and Crowder were not the only people who trashed the university’s academic standards on behalf of athletes. As Smith and Willingham detail, basketball and football players in need of a quick fix also took courses like “Women in Sport,” “Education in American Life,” and “The French Novel in Translation.” The last course crops up again and again on the transcripts of paper-course athletes. Its instructor, Frederick Wright Vogler, died at the age of 81 in 2013, while the scandal raged.
Julius Nyang’oro, a Tanzanian immigrant, was forced to resign, disgraced, and threatened with imprisonment. Frederick Wright Vogler had lived a long and happy life of academic, civic, and family accomplishment. According to his obituary, “he is also remembered by many students outside his department as their instructor for two popular nonmajor elective French literature courses given in English translation.” The Carolina Way always promised different things to different people, and it continued that tradition throughout its demise.
Even worse are those who want the social prestige and financial rewards of being admitted to a highly selective university and the fun of watching their favorite team beat up lesser rivals on Saturday afternoon. Part of becoming an adult is understanding that you have to make choices in life. These people have built a corrupt machine that churns through young lives, just to maintain their adolescent fantasy.
Worst of all, there was so little at stake. Nine years after the 1993 men’s basketball title game, the NCAA determined that four of the Michigan basketball players had accepted loans from a sports agent, which is definitely worse than a multidecade cheating scandal involving thousands of athletes that was abetted through willful neglect and incompetence by senior university officials. The NCAA “vacated” Michigan’s wins for the 1992-93 season, which means the official record of the championship game now stands, absurdly, as Michigan (0-4) vs. UNC (34-4).
The only way forward is to drain the dishonesty out of a system fueled by falsehoods, large and small.
I had completely forgotten about this. What I have not forgotten was the afternoon during the week in between the regional final and the Final Four when Carolina’s seven-foot-tall center, Eric Montross, ate lunch in one of my booths at the Red Hot & Blue barbecue restaurant where I was working as a waiter. Montross sat facing the side of the building with the entrance to the parking lot and ordered two full racks of ribs with a tall glass of milk. His girlfriend, who was the size of a camellia bloom and just as pretty, ordered a small salad and sparkling water.
I wasn’t even a student at UNC — just a 22-year-old dope from upstate New York who forgot to sign up for the GRE on time and moved into a cheap apartment in Carrboro with a buddy because Southern college towns are nice places to hang out while you wait for grad school to start in August. I also remember Michigan’s tense victory over Rick Pitino’s Kentucky squad in the semifinal because that actually happened, despite whatever memory hole the NCAA pretends to possess.
The whole excruciating ordeal, the permanent stain on a proud university’s reputation, was just to protect a couple of rectangular pieces of cloth commemorating events that can’t be undone. All so people who have tied up their self-worth in a basketball team don’t have to endure a little imaginary asterisk attached to their cherished memories.
As the longtime NCAA critic Joe Nocera recently noted, the sight of college athletes signing above-board endorsement deals for the first time this year has not produced the apocalyptic decline in fan enthusiasm that the NCAA long predicted. A formal salary structure seems like just a matter of time. The thorny question isn’t whether athletes should be paid for their work. It’s whether they should have to be — or pretend to be — students at the same time.
The bedrock tragedy of the UNC affair is that so many athletes were promised a better education and got a worse one instead. As Jay Smith and Willingham write, “No regular UNC student would ever dream of compiling the odd assortment of courses that show up on a typical scholarship football or basketball player’s transcript.” The university lied to the students who broke under the weight of combining a full-time job with courses they were unprepared to pass, and it lied to the students who soldiered through with 120 random credits and little learning. This was true before Nyang’oro and Crowder ever hatched their conspiracy, and it is true today in colleges and universities nationwide.
The only way forward is to drain the dishonesty out of a system fueled by falsehoods, large and small. College-affiliated athletes should be paid the full value of their labor. They should be free to switch teams just as a coach can switch jobs. They should be given an irrevocable right to four years of free education, even if they get hurt or aren’t very good or just decide they’d rather spend their time doing something else. Reduced admissions standards for athletes should be abolished, not just for the so-called “revenue sports” but also the country-club pursuits that give a leg up to whiter, wealthier applicants. Tell the truth, and if that makes it harder to win ball games, remind yourself what colleges and universities are for.
That, or wait for the paper-class scandal on your campus to be exposed. The amount of money sloshing around college sports right now makes corruption unavoidable. Every president, dean, and director who pretends otherwise is living on borrowed time.