Rashad McCants

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The testimony of Rashad McCants on ESPN’s Outside the Lines (OTL) on June 6 took the UNC scandal to new and more hideous heights. This is not because critics of the University learned anything particularly new that day. Star players took no-show classes? They had tutors providing them unlimited forms of assistance for their course work? The grades in all those fake courses were dramatically higher than those in real courses? Players understood that they would be taken care of by their stewards of eligibility? No one who has been paying close attention to news reports over the past several years, whether about the UNC case or about other sports programs across the country, could have been terribly surprised by any of that.

No, what makes the McCants’ story so hideous is the reaction it elicited from his coach, former UNC athletes, a range of lazy journalists, and rah-rah Carolina fans everywhere. Filling the vacuum left by the absent Chancellor, they reflexively locked arms and denounced McCants as a liar, a traitor, a kook, a snitch, and a loose cannon angling for profit. (An enraged Michael Wilbon, a friend of Roy Williams, went on ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption and practically shouted at the camera: “McCants has zero credibility!”) All of these tactics were familiar enough to the UNC community after the painful experience of the past six months. But this time the attacks on the bearer of inconvenient truths were enough to turn a person’s stomach. When a University unhesitatingly turns on a former student and throws him under the bus, it tells the world that its value-system has been turned upside down.

What follows is one short list of reasons why the assault on McCants should be remembered as one of the lowest moments in the entire UNC scandal:

1. He’s not alone. McCants actually belongs to a short but growing list of former UNC athletes who have testified to having had the same basic academic experiences. Football players Michael McAdoo, Bryon Bishop, and Deunta Williams have all gone on the record to say that academic support staff helped them to cut corners–by steering them to no-show classes, by placing them in easy majors, and by providing overly generous assistance with their written work. In each case, University officials have either refused comment or have sought to discredit the testimony by labeling the athletes as “disgruntled” or dishonest. Given all that has come to light in the last four years regarding suspect course registrations, defective advising practices, and corrupted academic standards, the speed and fury with which corroborating testimony has been denounced are disheartening. Not only has the University failed to shake its instinct to deny, deny, deny–even after four solid years of bad news–but it is perfectly willing to disown and defame athletes to whom it once sold the virtues of “the Carolina way.”

2. Honorable motives. In both the ESPN online article that accompanied the June 6 story and in his follow-up OTL appearance a few days later, McCants made clear that his objective in coming forward at this time is to focus attention on the ways that the system mistreats college athletes–academically, financially, and otherwise. The defenders of Carolina want none of that, however. They prefer to discredit McCants by bringing up stray comments he made ten years ago as a twenty-year old. (He once likened UNC to a prison. How, then, can anyone believe a word the man says?) A person’s identity, values, and purpose in life, some Tar Heels evidently believe, are fixed sometime between the age of seventeen and twenty. No growth, no maturing, no changes in perspective can be expected to occur after that formative period. But wait–does this make any sense? How many of us would want to have to defend every remark uttered, every deed committed, when we were in our late teens or early twenties? Why not assume the good faith of the 29-year-old McCants and seek to engage him in conversation? Why be so quick to cast aspersions and to call his motives into question? The answer would seem to be that some consider it more important to protect the Carolina basketball brand, whatever the human costs, than to address honestly the structural flaws that the UNC scandal has so painfully highlighted.

3. He talked about himself and had proof. Rashad McCants spoke to ESPN about his own experiences in and out of class. (He was mostly out of class, it turns out.) He bravely shared his own transcript and divulged details about his record–the two failed courses from the fall of 2004, for example–that others would have been hesitant to reveal. Yet people dare to brand him a liar? On what grounds? How is it that the critics of Rashad McCants can presume to know more about his experiences than he knows himself? His transcript is certainly not lying, and circumstantial evidence tends to corroborate virtually everything he said. He also refused to name names, preserving the anonymity of the tutor(s) who helped him and the players who benefited from the same tutorial generosity that he took advantage of time and again. He said, both in the online ESPN article and in his follow-up appearance on OTL, that “it’s the whole college system” that needs to change; he expressed no hostility toward UNC and never suggested that all the problems at UNC are institution-specific. In short, Rashad McCants drew on his own experience, placed it in the context of what we already know, and thereby threw a piercing light on systemic corruption. The people who reflexively labeled him a liar are either blind, disingenuous, or both.

4. The absence of academic officers. As McCants himself noted in his second OTL appearance, the University made a curious decision when it allowed a basketball coach to be the principal official spokesperson in response to a story alleging academic fraud. (The AD Bubba Cunningham also rushed out a statement–generally sensible and measured in tone. But why was the athletic director the only high-level administrator ready to comment on the academic experiences of a subset of UNC students?) The experience of Rashad McCants is an indictment of the academic itinerary followed by at least some of UNC’s scholarship athletes in recent years. Why have the Provost and the Chancellor remained silent in the face of these ugly revelations? Why did they allow the athletic department to abuse the good will of its former “student-athletes” by immediately rounding them up for a reverse perp walk on Roy Williams’ behalf? More than a few of the athletes who signed that pre-fabricated letter disavowing McCants’s testimony took more than a few paper classes of their own. Their loyalty to the basketball program is understandable, even commendable, but asking them to compound the problem by disguising their own academic histories so as to better refute the raw reality of McCants’s experience is unacceptable behavior on the part of an institution of higher learning. When academic fraud involving athletes is alleged, should the athletic department not be expected to defer to the academic officers in charge of the academic operation? If it does not defer, if athletics officials instinctively handle the University’s PR, what does that say about who’s really in charge?

5. The reflex to protect the investment. The panicky response to the McCants testimony from Roy Williams, many of his former players, and Carolina basketball fans everywhere underlines just how powerful a hold “the program” has on the loyalties, and the identities, of all who have been a part of it. There are, of course, many good reasons why so many feel passionate about the history and legacy of UNC basketball. Over the years the program has produced not only a lot of wins, but also a lot of good coaches, many good athletics professionals, and plenty of good people. Many of the athletes who jumped to the defense of the University also surely feel that they benefited from their time at Carolina, that their educations were valuable to them, and that the coaches with whom they worked were virtuous people who do not deserve to have their names tarnished by scandal. Many of them also know that their own futures are partly dependent on the value of the Carolina brand; their job prospects are enhanced through their association with “the Carolina way.” But the truth of these realities, which must be acknowledged, does not supersede UNC’s collective obligation to acknowledge the basic truth of what Rashad McCants has reported. That the system bestows some benefits on some people does not authorize any of us to ignore the defects of that same system. In its current configuration, the operation of the big-time sport system virtually requires the sacrifice of integrity and the neglect of the University’s mission. ESPN has only dragged out into the sunlight what we all already knew.

Athletes may be “better off” for having come to Carolina; this does not mean, ipso facto, that they received all that they deserved. Nor does it mean that the University and the NCAA have truly honored their commitments to recruited scholarship athletes in basketball and football (and to some in the so-called Olympic sports.) Rashad McCants knows he was wronged. UNC and its supporters should show him enough respect to try to understand why.

 

Posted on behalf of Mary Willingham and Jay Smith

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