Miller: What role did UNC athletes play in the AFAM academic fraud scandal?

Nov. 4, 2014, 9:48 p.m.

This is the second of a multi-part column series on the academic fraud scandal at UNC.

Last week, I discussed where the blame for the academic fraud scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill might be assigned. It is clear from the Kenneth Wainstein report that responsibility for the creation and maintenance of the scheme falls on a number of individuals, including Deborah Crowder, Julius Nyang’oro, the academic advisors for student-athletes and, perhaps most disturbingly, university officials. These individuals and groups of individuals were all, at some level, complicit in a scheme that benefited neither student-athletes nor the university, and has called into question the integrity of one of the nation’s most revered public education institutions.

Although I understand that the blame game is not the most productive way to discuss this scandal, I nevertheless want to address another party that I believe shares culpability in this situation: the athletes themselves. After all, it was the athletes who reaped the short-term benefits from the “paper class” scheme, which allowed many of them to remain eligible for NCAA competition. What level of blame, if any, can be placed on the Tar Heel student-athletes who took advantage of the African and Afro-American Studies department’s fraudulent practices?

The answer, in my opinion, is more than you might think. I will acknowledge that the athletes did not encourage or lobby Crowder to create or perpetuate the sham classes, nor did they steer themselves into the classes (their academic advisors did). And, unlike the university administrators, the athletes were not in the position to audit and regulate the academic department that was essentially the linchpin to their eligibility, and even if they were, why would they? Why would they kill the goose that was laying the proverbial golden eggs?

However, at some point, their consciences should have kicked in and told them: “What I’m doing here is wrong. College isn’t supposed to be this way—I’m supposed to be judged on the quality of my work, just like I am on the field of play. This university gave me the opportunity to earn a fantastic education while suiting up for their sports team, and I’m throwing that opportunity away by skating through ‘paper classes.’”

In any event, to assign no blame to the UNC athletes who participated in the “paper class” scam would be inappropriate; any number of them could have done what was morally and ethically right and blown the whistle on the AFAM department’s practices. However, no one did, and for that, they should share the responsibility for sustaining the well-documented fraud. Likewise, to make them shoulder the brunt of the blame would be just as unreasonable; ultimately, the athletes were not the ones who devised the scheme and ensured its continued success. They were the beneficiaries, not the insurers.

I want to now turn from the “who,” namely, who is to blame for the “paper class” debacle at UNC, to the “why.” Why did individuals like Crowder and Nyang’oro engage in the behavior that, when uncovered, has shamed an entire university? Why did they feel the need to violate academic integrity standards? Why were the “paper classes” even necessary in the first place?

It comes down to this: a university’s unwise and, on many levels, unfair admittance of elite athletes who were underprepared for the challenges of college-level academics at a rigorous institution like UNC — no matter how athletically talented or driven they may be.

Trust me, I am all for giving young people the opportunity to earn an education that will, hopefully, prepare them for sustained success in life. But the bottom line is that admitting students solely on the basis of their ability to contribute to the university’s athletic team, and without any regard for their ability to succeed in the classroom, not only disrespects the academic primary of the institution, it demonstrates callous neglect of an athlete’s long-term future.

Cameron Miller believes that the UNC student-athletes, from their positions of power of being dependent upon the athletics department for their very scholarship, should have blown the whistle on this scandal, rather than the senior athletic department and university officials, who have absolutely no power at any university, and, unlike athletes, are paid to do their jobs. To discuss the incongruities of this situation with Cameron, please e-mail him at cmiller6 ‘at’

Cameron Miller is a sports desk editor for The Stanford Daily's Vol. 246 and is the men's and women's golf writer. He also writes on NCAA-related matters. Cameron is also a Stanford student-athlete, competing on the cross country and track and field teams. He is originally from Bakersfield, California, but spends most of his time away from the Farm on the state's Central Coast. Contact him at [email protected].

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