The Anatomy of Athletic-(Academic) Corruption

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Over at Inside Carolina, the fan forum for true blue Tar Heel devotees, there’s a competing interpretation of the AFRI/AFAM course fraud that manages to exonerate the athletic department from wrongdoing. According to this interpretation, all the malfeasance that marred the UNC curriculum for two decades was carried out by irresponsible academic officers–Debby Crowder, Julius Nyang’oro and their supervisors in South and Steele Buildings. The principal facilitator of the fraud, Crowder, merely wished to do her part to help “underprivileged” students, athletes and non-athletes included. She was misguided in her generosity, but there was no specific motive to help the athletic department in the scheme she orchestrated. The academic counselors in the ASPSA, according to this alternative perspective, never had any idea that their advisees were benefiting from course fraud and they never had any reason to suspect that the courses scheduled by Debby Crowder were anything other than legitimate. Six months after the Wainstein report, and six weeks after the publication of our book Cheated, defenders of the UNC athletic department continue to adhere to the gospel according to Jim Martin: “This was not an athletic scandal!”

To clear-eyed observers it is obvious that this is a preposterous claim. The reporting of Dan Kane, the copious documentation provided in the Wainstein report, and the data and anecdotes shared in our book all point unmistakably to a nexus of collusion involving athletic and academic officials. In the Wainstein report, basketball academic counselor Jan Boxill is shown lobbying Crowder for a passing grade for a recycled paper turned in by one of her advisees. Academic counselor Brent Blanton is shown joking with Compliance director Amy Herman about the “notorious” paper classes used by his advisees. Academic counselor Wayne Walden is shown asking Crowder for a paper class enrollment for one of his advisees–one who struggled with reading and writing. (Walden often rewarded Crowder with choice tickets to games.) Soccer coach Anson Dorrance is shown pressuring Blanton to get one of his players into an “ace in the hole” independent study course. Crowder is shown coaching Walden on the need to distribute gifts to faculty and staff who “help keep these [athletes] in school.” And of course, academic counselors Beth Bridger and Jaimie Lee are shown in full panic mode when reporting to the football coaching staff on the imminent disappearance of the paper class curriculum in 2009–the curriculum in which players “didn’t go to class,” “didn’t take notes [or] have to stay awake,” “didn’t have to meet with professors,” and “didn’t have to pay attention” or “engage the material.” These courses–clearly substandard, clearly the product of administrative flimflam–“met degree requirements” but were about to disappear, and this had obviously produced great anxiety among the counseling staff. (Lee actively lobbied Julius Nyang’oro to keep distributing academic gifts to athletes even after Crowder retired.) Athletics personnel clearly participated knowingly, willfully, and happily in a deceptive scheme designed in large part to help athletes cut corners. There is no denying this reality.

Even so, we would like to focus attention on one particularly rich email–one of many rich emails written by Debby Crowder to ASPSA staff. Virtually every sentence of this email shows Crowder’s exceptionally solicitous attitude toward athletes. It shows her actively looking for new ways to bend or ignore standards for an athlete with whom she had become extremely close. It shows that corruption required teamwork–and that back-scratching and winking at rules worked in two directions during the course fraud scheme. First, the text of the email, with ellipses taking the place of redacted words:

 

From: Deborah Crowder <dacrowde@email.unc.edu>

Sent: Tuesday, March 28, 2006 4:15 PM

To: Wayne Walden <wwalden@mail.uncaa.unc.edu>

Cc: Janet Huffstetler < >

Subject:

Hi folks. I had a visit this afternoon from……I realize he has not had AFAM 70 or 174 but according to my reading of his transcript he has had 9 classes that can count toward his major. Since he will only be here…….I won’t have an independent 70 or 174 so we will have to substitute something–that is no problem. Wayne–he says he needs……perspectives but could not locate the paper saying which ones. He did mention that he needs…..–if so, we have AFAM…..on the books this semester (I don’t think we will have it next semester) and since it is a…..course you can use it as a…..even though it is……I have added several non-athletic persons to classes this week so am comfortable adding him to it if you think there would be time to get it complete. (This is another independent class.) It is up to you guys but it would take care of a requirement. He mentioned he has to take the two math subs, Music…and _____. I asked Betsy Taylor her opinion on the best “other” math sub and she suggested COMP 4 (Computers and Society). I will put him in something for his 10th AFAM for the fall. Anyway, we have to decide soon before they put his hold back on. Let me know. Debby

“Hi folks. I had a visit this afternoon from…” Crowder formed unusually close relationships with basketball players. (We know the person referenced here is a basketball player because Walden was the basketball academic counselor and Huffstetler was a tutor who worked ONLY with men’s basketball players.) She was a longtime fan. Burgess McSwain–who served in Walden’s role for decades, until her death in 2004–was one of Crowder’s best friends. Crowder’s partner is a former men’s basketball player. A former faculty member from AFRI/AFAM reports in Cheated (p. 8) that Crowder assumed a “motherly” relationship with many athletes, and basketball players were especially favored.

“I realize he has not had AFAM 70 or 174 but according to my reading of his transcript he has had 9 classes that can count toward his major.” Here Crowder is doing the work of an academic advisor, studying a player’s course worksheet to check his progress in the major. An AFAM major required ten courses, including certain core courses. Crowder noticed a few problems that would require some strategizing. AFAM 70 and 174 were core courses required of every major, and this player had taken neither even though he was clearly nearing the end of his time at Carolina.

“Since he will only be here…….I won’t have an independent 70 or 174 so we will have to substitute something–that is no problem.” The timing issue evoked here is not easily deciphered. For whatever reason, it would appear that paper class versions of these core courses were probably not on the books for an upcoming summer session, and this player would likely “only be here” during the session when they were not available. But Crowder nonchalantly put on the hat of undergraduate studies director and assured Wayne Walden that it would be “no problem” to substitute something else for the core courses–even though substitutions of this sort normally occur only with the permission of an undergraduate studies director and/or the department chair. Since there were no administrative hurdles in place within the AFRI/AFAM department, Crowder was free to make calls on the curriculum and on the management of both department majors–she was the only administrative assistant in the entire College of Arts and Sciences who ever wielded such authority. (Everyone in ASPSA would have understood this; it’s why they were on the phone to Crowder almost every day.) Note also here the taken for granted character of the parallel curriculum Crowder and Nyang’oro had constructed. “I won’t have an independent 70 or 174…” means that she would not be able to offer the watered down versions of the core courses in the academic term in which the player needed or wanted to take them. The adjective “independent” seems innocent enough, but Crowder and the ASPSA also knew full well that the College restricted the number of independent studies a student could take (only four were allowed.) Hence the need to disguise the fraudulent “independent” experiences as real lecture classes. The rules bent for the purpose of helping athletes had begun to accumulate in layers.

“Wayne–he says he needs……perspectives but could not locate the paper saying which ones. He did mention that he needs…..–if so, we have AFAM…..on the books this semester (I don’t think we will have it next semester) and since it is a…..course you can use it as a…..even though it is……” Here Crowder is continuing her “job” as academic advisor, paying attention not only to the player’s major requirements but to General Education requirements (which went by the name of “perspectives” until the fall 2006 semester.) Crowder has noticed that the player still needs several perspectives filled–one of which could be filled with a course from the AFRI/AFAM department, a course that was conveniently able to count toward several things at once. Nothing nefarious here, until Crowder finishes her thought…

“I have added several non-athletic persons to classes this week so am comfortable adding him to it if you think there would be time to get it complete. (This is another independent class.) It is up to you guys but it would take care of a requirement. ” Here Crowder is at her most conniving. First, note how she ends her suggestion–with the reminder that this is another “independent” (wink, wink) class, a paper class with no requirements other than a paper to be turned in at the end of the term. Since “I have added several non-athletic persons” to such classes this week, she would be taking no real risk in adding another athlete to the course; the non-athletes always provided useful cover for athletics-specific favoritism. So, Crowder is saying here, let’s circumvent a graduation requirement by enrolling this player in a paper class version of a General Education course–and let’s do it in late March of the spring semester! (Where else did ASPSA counselors get their athletes added to classes in week ten of a fourteen-week semester? Nowhere–the practice is fraudulent on its face.) Only four weeks were remaining in the term, but after all, the requirements were lax. “If you think there would be time to get it [a paper] complete,” this would be a pretty great deal, since “it would take care of a requirement.” It’s “up to you guys,” but I’m making you an offer you really shouldn’t refuse. It would benefit one of our “children” (a month later, on April 28, Crowder would notify Walden that she had seen “a number of your children who have brought in their papers.”)

“He mentioned he has to take the two math subs, Music…and _____. I asked Betsy Taylor her opinion on the best “other” math sub and she suggested COMP 4 (Computers and Society).” This sentence reminds us of two things. First, the athletic department fought for the admission of very weak students, and the admissions office was clearly very obliging. Included among the weaker students were many who managed to be exempted from some UNC graduation requirements (e. g., math) on the grounds that they were learning disabled. At UNC as at most big-time sport universities, support programs strive mightily to have as many players labeled “learning disabled” as possible, regardless of the reality of the disability. It is useful to win this designation because authorized “substitutes” (that is, courses that can be passed more easily) lighten the academic burdens of the athletes in question. Second, this sentence provides another allusion to a key figure outside the AFRI/AFAM department–Betsy Taylor, the longtime graduation clearance advisor in Steele building. Taylor, too, “helped” athletes and other students who needed easy classes that would speed them toward graduation. She directed students to AFRI/AFAM independent studies on many occasions. The network of complicity in UNC’s course fraud scheme ran wide and deep.

“Anyway, we have to decide soon before they put his hold back on. Let me know. Debby”  Here we see another expression of systematic favoritism toward athletes. “Holds” are placed on a student’s registration–meaning the student is blocked from registering from classes–whenever he/she has an unpaid balance in the Cashier’s office. For athletes, these balances usually arose from parking violations. The very friendly department of public safety–frequent beneficiaries of athletic department largess in the form of game tickets and gear–would “lift” the holds during the course registration period so that athletes would not be unduly inconvenienced by the blots on their parking record. But the favoritism would be extended only so far; to keep up appearances, the holds would be placed back on the student’s account at the end of the registration period.

Debby Crowder was certainly corrupt. But her email of March 28, 2006 shows that she was no lone wolf. An eligibility system in which she was the vital linchpin had been elaborated over many years and with the assistance and conscious complicity of many officers all across the UNC campus. Other than Crowder herself, no one was more fully conscious of the corners being cut than the academic counselors in ASPSA who kept Crowder on speed dial. She bailed them out whenever their athletes needed “help,” which was often. They knowingly took advantage of ‘favors’ they could get nowhere else. Knowing Crowder personally, they also knew that one of her prime motivations–one of her purposes in life–was to do whatever was necessary to ease the academic burdens placed on athletes. In conspiring to cheat the system together, they all cheated athletes of the chance to grow up, assert their autonomy, and pursue educations that might actually have mattered to them.

 

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