Jay Smith Counters UNC’s Response to HBO Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel

UNC’s Vice Chancellor for Communications and Public Affairs, Joel Curran, has released a statement in response to the HBO ‘Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel’ piece that aired yesterday, March 25, 2014. In that piece, two former UNC football players discussed being steered to fraudulent “paper classes” by academic counselors in the academic support program for student athletes. They also claimed that their majors and the courses for which they registered in their first semesters on campus were chosen for them by counselors. Given the broader context of the HBO presentation - reporter Bernie Goldberg focused on the way that eligibility concerns trump education at big-time sport universities – the testimony of Michael McAdoo and Bryon Bishop was damning. The players claimed, in effect, that the university did not take its educational responsibilities seriously. The powers that be cared only about keeping players on the field, at the cost of academic shortcuts.

Curran’s comment on the HBO show deserves a careful deconstruction, because in its dishonesty, it provides a useful display of the university’s long-term strategy of obfuscation and denial. This public relations strategy has helped some UNC figures escape accountability, but it has also immeasurably prolonged the institution’s scandal-induced pain. The Curran statement is a fine example of everything that is wrong with UNC-Chapel Hill’s handling of its athletic scandal.

First, the announcement in its entirety:

“Tuesday night’s ‘HBO Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel’ segment covered information that has previously been reported and discussed. UNC-Chapel Hill announced nearly two years ago that there were irregular classes taught. Since then, we have conducted seven reviews, and an eighth is underway. In addition, we have instituted numerous reforms including new governance and accountability standards in our Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes; revamped department structures and reporting relationships to ensure checks and balances at every level; and new systems for classroom audits and course oversight. Those efforts were in addition to strengthening how the Office of Undergraduate Admissions assesses prospective student-athletes.

Our goal is to create an academic success program that is one of the best, if not the leader, among peer universities.

We are concerned when any student—athlete or otherwise—is disappointed in the experience he or she has at the University. UNC-Chapel Hill includes nearly 800 students who participate in athletics across 28 varsity teams, and the demands are significant. We are confident we offer our students an outstanding education. As a group, the 201 first-year student-athletes enrolled in 2013 earned a collective B through their first semester. In addition, 329 UNC varsity student-athletes made the Atlantic Coast Conference’s 2012-2013 Academic Honor Roll with a 3.0 grade-point average or better for the school year – first among the ACC’s public institutions and third overall.

Our focus is helping students become leaders not only in their respective sports, but also in the classroom and community. Our students are committed to achieving great success. We are equally committed to providing them the best experience academically, personally and competitively.”

The first thing that jumps out is the politician’s tactic of claiming that embarrassing revelations represent no more than “old news.” In this case, the statement is a pure falsehood. The HBO report was not about the existence of no-show classes, a well-established fact at this point. The HBO report brought valuable new information to the public’s attention by capturing on camera, for the first time, UNC athletes’ claims that they were steered to fraudulent classes by athletic department personnel. They also claimed that their courses and majors were selected through eligibility calculations rather than for educational reasons. To dismiss such statements as “old news” is merely to provide a dishonest cover for the university’s stubborn refusal to admit that counselors “steered” players to substandard courses. To this day, UNC-Chapel Hill has never acknowledged the reality of that fraudulent course-selection mechanism, or of the longstanding admissions practices that seemed to make that mechanism “necessary.” Curran merely continues the pattern of deflecting attention from the very crux of the issue.

Curran then rushes on, as has become the university habit, to cite the number of reforms already implemented and the number of reviews conducted. If each university review was so limited, so partial, so flawed, so inadequate that it required a follow-up, why bother to draw attention to this serial failure? Does Curran actually believe that quantity can substitute for quality? That three or five or ten obstructed views can compensate for the lack of an honest and comprehensive assessment of what went wrong at UNC-Chapel Hill? It seems more likely that he believes the public can be deceived with such rhetoric, and that UNC can continue to play the honest and hard-working victim of media persecution.

As for the reforms that have been implemented, some of them positive, critical thinkers long ago noted the paradox that UNC repeatedly claims to have fixed problems it never had. In the absence of a mea culpa that identifies failures with honesty and precision, the claim that twenty or fifty or two hundred “reforms have been implemented” rings hollow. For what purpose the reform? To correct which past failing? Which problem did the reformers seek to address and why? Curran points to “new governance and accountability standards in our Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes,” for example, but given the university’s position on the nature of its scandal–was it not strictly “academic”?–the public can only ask: why the new standards? What was wrong with the old ones? No failure has been admitted in the ASPSA, so why is the university wasting time, money, and effort to “fix” a non-existent problem? The same general point holds for his gesture toward the admissions process. Since the university has not admitted and will not admit that its admissions process ever failed us, why have changes been made? Curran runs in rhetorical circles.

Finally, Curran closes his statement with a classic, and perfectly typical, exercise in obfuscation. Taking his cue from an earlier announcement from the Vice Provost for admissions, Curran notes that “the 201 first-year student-athletes enrolled in 2013 earned a collective B [2.9] through their first semester,” and many more wound up on the academic honor roll. It is always nice to celebrate the academic achievements of our students, and like so many of my colleagues, I have often been impressed by the “student-athletes” in my own classes. Still, Curran’s use of aggregate figures is a transparent ploy to disguise the academic performance of the weaker students at the end of the chain – the students whose abilities have been the source of so much controversy since January of this year. The first objection to raise over Curran’s statistics is that the average GPA of a UNC undergraduate is 3.2 or better; a collective 2.9 is therefore nothing to crow about. Of course the more important objection is this: among the “201 first-year student-athletes” whose performance Curran wants to trumpet are a certain number–perhaps twenty-five or thirty?–who play in the revenue- (or profit-) sports. Those athletes are precisely the athletes most likely to be academically challenged, most likely to be subject to eligibility pressures of the sort highlighted in the HBO report, and most likely to have weighed down the aggregate GPA of the 201 students in question. The university always talks about its “student-athletes” in this manner because it always hopes to avoid talking about academic performance by team–especially if the teams are football and basketball, and even more especially if the questions pertain to the scholarship players on those teams. It is no coincidence that the two players interviewed by HBO on March 25, 2014 came from the football team. That Curran would think it appropriate to respond to their claims by touting the academic exploits of our “201 first-year student-athletes” tells us all we need to know about the game of misdirection that UNC-Chapel Hill has now been playing for years.

Curran says “we are confident we offer our students an outstanding education.” The implication is that those who fail to take what’s on “offer” have only themselves to blame. This is hogwash. Ignoring UNC’s complicity in a system that is structurally prejudiced against athletes in the profit-sports, and stacked against any athlete who gets identified and labeled as an “eligibility” case, is the most offensive form of denial in which the university has engaged. It’s time to acknowledge the Bryon Bishops and the Michael McAdoos, it’s time to apologize to them. Dismissing them as “old news” only adds insult to injury. Surely, UNC-Chapel Hill can do better.

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Liz Arredondo

Liz is the VP of Communications for Paper Class Inc. under the direction of PCI's Founder, Mary Willingham. Liz is a strong believer in the promise of higher education and the goals of PCI to support college athletes' rights to a real education.

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