Smith, Jay M., and Mary Willingham. Cheated: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-Time College Sports. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015. Pp. 304. Notes and Index. $26.95 hardback.
Reviewed by Jorge Iber
With the current brouhaha surrounding the purported prostitution scandal tied to the University of Louisville’s basketball program, it is an interesting time to review Cheated: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-Time College Sports by UNC-Chapel Hill historian Jay M. Smith and former Tar-Heels athletics academic counselor Mary Willingham. The coauthors’ meticulous work serves as a first person and thorough accounting of the notorious academic scandal and cover up that commenced at UNC in the 1990s and lasted for approximately two decades. Contained within the pages of this fine study, academicians, the general public, and aficionados of collegiate sport will find much that will nauseate anyone who believes in the overall mission of American universities: to seek truth, educate, and open the minds to serious educational inquiry by the next generation of our nation’s citizenry; all for the price of success in athletic undertakings.
While the UNC scandal may lack the salaciousness of a graduate assistant hiring strippers in order to lure recruits to wear Louisville colors, the goings on in Chapel Hill, ably documented by Smith and Willingham, clearly demonstrate that the tribulations extant in collegiate sports go much further than mere sexual escapades to entice potential hardwood conscripts. Indeed with such an outrage taking place, and being covered up at a prestigious institution of higher learning, it makes it necessary to ask how many more such episodes need occur before there is a call for greater oversight across the oftentimes murky swamp that is American collegiate sports; particularly the “revenue generating” programs of football and men’s basketball. Ultimately, these are the most serious, and complex, questions Smith and Willingham pose in their work.
Because of her position within the Academic Support Program for Student Athletes (ASPSA) at UNC, Mary Willingham had regular access to the inner workings of how students and advisors interacted at the facility. Subsequently, she became all-too-familiar with the machinery that used a “shadow curricula, eligibility ‘tricks,’ deceptive rhetoric and warped scheduling priorities,” in order to keep talented athletes on the court and field (p. XVI). The key issue, this book argues, is that an apparatus had to exist that would keep athletes, many of whom were woefully under-prepared for the rigors of university academics, qualified so that the Heels could “keep up with the Joneses” in the competitive world of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Most troubling was the collusion of faculty and staff members in continuing the deception that ill-served too many young men (and a smaller number of women) who donned the Carolina Blue jerseys of UNC.
The work, in my view, can be divided into three sections. The first (Chapters 1 & 2) covers the development of a departmental mechanism soon recognized by most on campus as the medium for awarding above average grades to athletes so as to counterbalance underwhelming grade outcomes in other, more rigorous sections. That entity proved to be the African American and African Studies Program (AFRI/AFAM) under the direction of Dr. Julius Nyang’oro, who by the early 1990s perceived himself as “the patron of the basketball team” (p. 13). Next, there had to be someone on the other side of the ledger, at the ASPSA, who worked in cahoots with Nyang’oro in order to funnel students into what proved to be less than rigorous classes. That individual was Debby Crowder. These two North Carolina state employees, Willingham documents, made AFRI/AFAM “the go-to place for all athletes and for anyone else who presented a story of need” (p. 33). One of these individuals turned out to be unanimous All-American (in 2001) Julius Peppers. The most shocking part of this section is that the authors reproduce a copy of this athlete’s transcript which shows the, to put it mildly, gross disparity between Mr. Peppers’ performance in AFRI/AFAM classes and those outside that particular unit. The amount of detail provided here is breathtaking. Not only do the authors document the favored treatment of a gridiron star, but they go on and present statistical information detailing how many athletes were funneled into such courses (often correspondence versions) and the GPA gap between sections with Nyang’oro and professors who, apparently, were interested in actual academic endeavor, rather than just keeping players eligible for competition.
The second portion of the work (Chapters 3 through 7) deals with the University’s attempt to cover up this shameful pattern of activities through subterfuge and deception. In a nutshell, an internal investigation (prior to the arrival of the NCAA to Chapel Hill) determined that “the counselors had no idea that Nyang’oro’s course was a bogus facsimile of a college course, one in which no teaching and little work would be done” (p. 109). After further research by the Charlotte News and Observer, Willingham finally came forward to divulge the totality of what she knew to the paper in November of 2012. More inquiry revealed that the institution itself worked to discredit this brave whistleblower. The final portion of this section goes even beyond the detailing of the Peppers story. While not identifying the specific player (they use the pseudonym “Reg”), the authors trace the academic career, such as it was, of this individual athlete. Again, the discussion centers on favored treatment and effort to keep this player on the field. Smith and Willingham also rightly chastise UNC for pushing this young man through for as long as possible even though, as Reg noted to one of the authors that “No one ever asked me to write anything before, Mary” (p. 152). Further, the more significant issue here is that such efforts by universities constitutes, in reality, an “infrastructure of fraud” that ultimately utilizes and eventually spits out the most vulnerable of student athletes: African American youths who often come from an “environment of dead-end depravation in which they and their families have become trapped” (p. 156). A final piece of evidence to buttress this notion of fraud and shameless utilization comes from a discussion of Willingham’s study of reading and writing abilities conducted with her charges between 2008 and 2012, which showed that most of her subjects (approximately 180) had SAT scores at or below 400 (below the 25th percentile of “regular” admitted students at UNC-Chapel Hill). Such results, the authors argue, “point to a classroom adjustment problems that will almost invariably mar the experiences of those with so much catching up to do” (p. 163).
The final portion of the book (Chapters 8, 9 and the Conclusion) demonstrate how, though less blatantly in most cases, similar patterns are visible at other institutions throughout the nation. One area of particular concern is the concentration of athletes into what can be referred to as “completer degrees,” such as University Studies or General Studies. How rigorous are these programs, even at an institution of the stature of the University of Michigan? At what price are we bringing these young men (mostly) and women, often from some of our nation’s most impoverished neighborhoods and communities, and selling them “a bill of goods,” that will not work out for the vast majority? Is this what a percentage of our nation’s university students have become: minor league development teams for the NFL and the NBA?
In their conclusion Willingham and Smith make what some may consider to be downright “radical” suggestions for reform: such as making football and men’s basketball autonomous commercial enterprises apart from the main purpose of the university. This may be a step too far, as most institutions, it can be hoped, would find fielding something akin to a NBA D-League and minor league football program in their school colors and logo too much of an affront to their academic reputations. Other suggestions, such as reducing travel time and shortening seasons might be more realistic.
Overall, this excellent book is a canary in the coalmine for those who love athletics at the collegiate level. Most aficionados want our alma maters and the institutions that employ us to win, but we also recognize that the integrity of our diplomas, and those that we help to produce, is truly the paramount aspect of what we do on a daily basis. As long as there are brave people such as Mary Willingham and Jay Smith, it may be possible for American universities to avoid going over the precipice in regard to sports. It is imperative that all stakeholders of such institutions read Cheated as a guide to guide their steps toward reform, and how to avoid some of the all-too-easy pitfalls that come with big-time athletics.
Jorge Iber is Associate Dean in the Student Division of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of History at Texas Tech University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.