A story of institutional failure and fumbled opportunities

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BOT member Alston Gardner: “Of course, the ultimate root cause [of our scandal] is big time college athletics.”

BOG member Burley Mitchell: “Hell, yes” the NCAA should return to investigate UNC.

BOT member Alston Gardner‘s response: “What an asshole.”

“Has Burley said this?” [Tom] Ross asked his chief spokeswoman, Joni Worthington, in an email. “I haven’t heard him say this. Do we know if he did?”

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There, in a nutshell, is the explanation for UNC’s lengthy trip down the river DeNile. Dan Kane’s latest blockbuster N&O series has revealed much of the inner thinking of UNC’s top brass, and their comments show that they were always in circle-the-wagons mode. In their hearts, UNC’s leaders always knew that the McSwain-Crowder-Nyang’oro course fraud scheme had been designed to serve the special needs of the athletic department. They knew that the admissions office had admitted badly under-prepared athletes to satisfy the needs of coaches. They knew that the absurdly disproportionate numbers of athletes enrolled in the courses exposed in the Hartlyn/Andrews report of 2012 could mean only one thing: that academic counselors from the ASPSA had deliberately steered athletes to those courses. They knew all this and more. But like their favorite scapegoat Jan Boxill, who until 2014 was a key member of UNC’s cover-up team as Chair of the Faculty, they focused their energies on two things–eluding the disciplinary reach of the NCAA and puffing up the false reputation of UNC as a place that did things “the right way.” Those priorities required that people like Burley Mitchell be shunned, shouted down, discredited, or ignored. When Mary Willingham finally spoke publicly about her experiences in November, 2012, after having illuminating conversations with Dan Kane for a full fifteen months, what did UNC’s supreme leader have to say? Did system president Tom Ross contact her directly? Did he ask her to share other information with him privately? Did he urge chancellor Thorp to reach out to the whistleblower? Did he alert the BOG to the possibility of larger and more troubling issues brewing in the athletic department? No. He wrote to UNC Chief of Staff Kevin Fitzgerald to ask a one-word question about Willingham. Mole?” Mole? Ross worried more about the possibility that an insider was leaking information than he worried about the nature of the information itself? Of course he did. Neither he nor any member of the BOT nor anyone in South Building ever wanted to “get to the bottom” of the scandal. They wanted only to make the bad news go away–and with it that pesky journalist who kept reporting the news. Even after the release of a “barf“-worthy investigative report that showed the depth of the corruption that had infected the institution, Alston Gardner worried mainly about the “great” press attention it brought. Presumably, he considered Ken Wainstein, too, to be an “a–hole.”

How sad that it took four and a half years of scandal before anyone in a leadership position saw the writing on the wall–years too late. Although members of the BOT and BOG had been told in no uncertain terms in 2012 that South Building was in full cover-up mode, no one from those governing boards pushed Chancellor Thorp to halt the policy of producing blustery half-measures. No one moved to empanel a truth squad that could act credibly to dig out the rot. They dithered as UNC-Chapel Hill covered. But at least BOG member Hannah Gage, after absorbing the lessons of the Wainstein report in late 2014, had the good sense and the conscience to feel regretful about UNC’s long history of bungling and denial. In an email to BOT Chair Lowry Caudill, as Dan Kane has shown, she finally said out loud what observant critics of the University’s scandal management had been thinking for years.

I’ve always felt that Lance Armstrong made a fatal mistake by sitting back and waiting for actions to be taken against him since he clearly had broken the rules,” she wrote in an email. “If he had stepped forward and taken responsibility, forfeited his Tour de France wins, and apologized, he would have continued to be thought of as a winner who stumbled, acknowledged his errors, returned his awards and re-established his integrity…

“…Instead, he did the opposite; waited for it to be done to him, not by him, and thus changed the course of his life. I don’t know if this analogy works in UNC’s case but sometimes the thing that you perceive to be the worst, is actually the door out.”

Sadly, UNC-Chapel Hill has still not found that door.

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