NCAA stays away; Nyang’oro indicted; Hairston dismissed
The final months of 2013 would contain a flurry of articles spanning nearly every aspect of UNC’s multiple scandals. On September 27 the men’s basketball team began preseason practice. Both P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald were present, but word was circulating that if the season had started that day, neither would be on the court. It remained to be seen if that would truly be the case once the team played its opening game in six more weeks. Meanwhile, more news emerged on other fronts.
An October 7, 2013, article in the News and Observer provided an update on the AFAM department and the students who had been affected by fraudulent classes. As of the article’s print date, only one student had enrolled in a make-up course and only one alumnus had inquired about the possibility, according to university officials. UNC spokeswoman Dee Reid said that 46 people were at risk of not graduating unless they completed an extra course. Reid said she didn’t know what year of study the 46 affected students were in or how many of them were athletes. The offer of free courses was part of an arrangement the school made with SACS, the accrediting body of the university. The academic degrees of 384 students and alumni were said to have been affected between 1997 and 2009, according to UNC. Future data presented by the N&O, however, would show that the numbers were likely much higher: as many as 4,200 students could have ultimately been affected by taking fraudulent courses.
Of the 384 people officially identified, 80 were current students and 304 were alumni. There was no mandate for the alumni to return to campus to retake a class, however. The article said that because university policy required that transcripts be sealed one year after graduation, there would be no way to award credit or a grade for a new class. The university had said it would cover the cost of the extra courses and textbooks with private funds. It remained unclear whether more students would feel obligated to do the extra work for a problem that was essentially caused by factions within the university itself.
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That same day a report came out stating that a longtime UNC tutor had quit, and done so in the form of writing a letter to basketball coach Roy Williams that was published in The Daily Tar Heel. Jack Halperin’s short message said: “Roy, after 23 years as an academic tutor, and after going through the devastating football scandal, I am resigning in protest of your disgraceful decision to allow P.J. Hairston to remain on the team. If I were arrested driving with no license, illegal drugs and a gun in a felon’s car, my employment at this University would end immediately. Hairston’s DTH quote was, ‘I will play this season.’ Since when does the criminal decide his fate?”
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An article appeared on October 11, 2013, on insidehighered.com detailing a new documentary film called “Schooled: The Price of College Sports”. It was based on the widely read Atlantic article “The Shame of College Sports” by historian Taylor Branch. Multiple people involved in varying aspects of college sports – both past and present – spoke in the documentary. Two of particular interest were UNC learning specialist Mary Willingham and News and Observer reporter Dan Kane.
“It’s the adults that are failing the students,” Willingham said. She also recounted a sobering conversation with a top UNC athletic official, the article detailed. The official acknowledged that investing millions to boost the school’s mid-level football team to the elite level in the late-1990’s would mean recruiting academically unprepared students. “I just felt like I was drowning,” Willingham said of the “drastic drop” in athletes’ academic preparation that followed. Some students who had been recruited couldn’t even read, and she recalled three in particular with whom she had to work on “letters and sounds.”
When the article (based on the corresponding documentary) mentioned the fraudulent AFAM classes which displayed multiple signs of being a vehicle to keep athletes eligible, it observed that the NCAA declined to investigate UNC because athletes were not the sole beneficiaries of the classes. “If the NCAA doesn’t want to look at this,” Dan Kane said, “you could argue they just sent a message to everyone across the county.” He was likely referring to a “blueprint” that other schools could follow if they wanted to provide impermissible academic assistance to their athletes without garnering unwanted attention from the Athletic Association.
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UNC began its basketball season on November 8, 2013, and both P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald sat out the contest. No official word was given for their absence other than there being “eligibility concerns.” There was another equally big story on that day as well. A News and Observer article was released that stated the NCAA was unlikely to punish the school for the widespread academic fraud in its AFAM department.
Information had been discovered once again through public records requests by the newspaper that had finally been filled. According to the N&O, newly released email correspondence revealed that the NCAA still did not see the school’s athletic/academic fraud as a concern. Writer Dan Kane said that in late September, Vince Ille, a UNC senior athletic official who had first been discussed in Chapter Eleven of this book, asked the NCAA to confirm that it had no plans to further investigate the fraud. “It is my understanding that, based on the available information, no additional investigation regarding these issues is being contemplated by the NCAA enforcement staff, nor does the staff believe that any modification of the infractions case that was complete on March 12, 2012 is necessary,” Ille wrote. “Can you please confirm or correct this assessment?” Less than an hour later, Mike Zonder, the NCAA’s associate director for enforcement, responded: “You are correct in your assessment regarding the situation involving the AFAM department.”
Zonder and NCAA President Mark Emmert did not respond to interview requests from the N&O. A spokeswoman for the NCAA, Emily James Potter, said in a short statement that Zonder’s email was “correct.” Ille and other UNC officials also declined to be interviewed. An ambiguity was where Ille had initially gotten the impression that led to his email to Zonder: that it has been his “understanding” that nothing additional would happen to the university. One possibility for that impression (which was hinted at in the article) could have come from Jackie Thurnes, Ille’s former co-worker when he was at the University of Illinois. After working with Ille on that collegiate campus, Thurnes would leave Illinois to become an enforcement official with the NCAA.
Overall, the article’s effect on the watchful public was one of stunned disbelief. Over a year earlier in September of 2012, UNC officials had released a statement saying that the NCAA had thus far found no evidence of violations. A vast amount of incriminating news had emerged since then, however, detailing multiple connections between athletics and the academic fraud. So it was no surprise that onlookers were left dumbfounded by the NCAA’s continued indifference to the events in Chapel Hill.
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It was detailed in an earlier chapter the vast amount of money UNC had spent on outside public relations assistance – a known total in the half-million dollar range. With that in mind, an early-November employment announcement from the school made an ironic bit of sense. A release from wral.com on November 11, 2013, said that Joel Curran, a senior executive in a public relations agency and fittingly an alumnus of UNC, had been named the school’s first vice chancellor for communications and public affairs. Curran was the managing director of the New York office for MSLGROUP, described in part as the world’s fourth largest public relations and engagement agency. The news release added that he had worked at public relations agencies across the country. Some people in social media speculated that if UNC felt the need to continue to spin stories and craft a certain message, they might as well hire someone full-time to help with that task.
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On December 2, 2013, an Orange County grand jury indicted former AFAM department chairman Julius Nyang’oro on a charge of obtaining property by false pretense. More importantly, his lawyer – Bill Thomas of Durham – said that his client intended to fight the charge filed against him. “Dr. Nyang’oro is presumed to be innocent under our law,” Thomas said. “There’s been one side of this story that has been put forth in the press, but he’s going to have an opportunity to present his side. We intend to present his case in court. He is going to contest these charges.” Those statements held some large ramifications, as Nyang’oro could possibly divulge a massive amount of as-yet-unreleased information about the AFAM scandal if put on the stand.
An article on December 3, 2013, by the News and Observer also had further insight from Jim Woodall, the Orange County District Attorney. Woodall had indicated that a second individual could face charges in the case, but he would only say that person was not a current UNC employee. Widespread speculation was that he was referring to Deborah Crowder, the longtime AFAM department manager who had also been extremely close to factions within the school’s men’s basketball program. Crowder had retired in 2009.
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Yet another embarrassing episode would hit the school’s basketball program a few days later. On December 6, 2013, a former UNC player was found to have marijuana and drug paraphernalia inside a house he had been renting from head basketball coach Roy Williams. According to a follow-up article from the News & Observer on December 13, Will Graves was the former player in question. Police had found 4.4 grams of marijuana, eight marijuana seeds, three blunts, and two “burnt marijuana blunts” inside the rented house.
Steve Kirschner, a UNC athletics department spokesman, said Graves had been renting the house from Williams while Graves took classes at UNC during the fall semester. Graves had played for the Tar Heels from 2007 through 2010, but had actually been kicked off of the team by Williams for a violation of team rules. Despite that prior conflict, Graves had been serving as a part-time video coordinator for the men’s basketball team at the time of the drug discovery. Property tax records showed that the house had an assessed value of over $600,000. In a separate article, Kirschner had told the Associated Press that Williams had allowed people to stay at the home periodically.
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On December 18, 2013, basketball player Leslie McDonald was cleared by the NCAA to return to the team. He had missed a total of nine games due to receiving impermissible benefits. Among them had been the use of cars associated with Haydn Thomas, the use of a custom mouth guard, and also an iPhone. He was ordered to repay $1,783 to a charity of his choice before the end of the regular season.
Fellow player P.J. Hairston was not as fortunate. The school announced two days later that Hairston would not return to the court that season, as the university had decided against seeking his reinstatement from the NCAA. UNC Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham gave more insight into the matter in a December 20, 2013, News and Observer article. “We’ve all been hopeful the entire time that he would be able to play again,” Cunningham said. “But by the time we gathered all the information and worked with the NCAA, it just wasn’t there.” Cunningham declined to detail the exact monetary value of the impermissible benefits Hairston had received.
When news began to spread that the school hadn’t even asked the NCAA to look at Hairston’s situation, many in social media began to speculate whether there was a deeper reason for that inaction by the university. Some wondered if the purpose was to keep from having to release information to the NCAA that might have uncovered even more issues within the basketball program. Or, in Hairston’s specific case, might have spanned back to prior seasons and forced the vacating of wins.
Hairston’s family released a statement in which it criticized UNC’s decision not to seek reinstatement, the N&O article reported. “We are displeased with the University of North Carolina’s decision not to submit the necessary paperwork to the NCAA requesting to have P.J. reinstated,” the statement read. “This process has been long, and for (it) to end without having a final decision from the governing body is a shame.”
The Associated Press had earlier reported that Bill Thomas, a Durham lawyer representing Haydn Thomas, said his client had met with school officials in early December for “an in-depth interview… to clear up any misconceptions about the relationship between Haydn Thomas and Mr. Hairston.” As an interesting and somewhat odd side note, Bill Thomas was also the lawyer representing former AFAM chairman Julius Nyang’oro in his grand jury case.
Not really mentioned by the media at that time, but still an issue of great importance, was the school’s ongoing NCAA probation. Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham had made the following statement in early 2013 when discussing the release of the Martin report: “There’s no denying that we’ve got major violations and we’re on probation. We didn’t go to a bowl game, and we’re under the repeat violator clause for the next five years.” The infractions incurred by McDonald and Hairston would clearly appear to be a violation of the school’s probation. Once again, where was the NCAA?
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As December would near its end, an article appeared on the website bleacherreport.com titled “Inside Roy Williams’ Most Trying Season.” It talked of the effects the various scandals had had on the 63-year-old coach, with Williams saying, “I never in my life thought I’d have these kind of things happen. It’s cast a light on our program that I don’t like, and it’s cast a light on me that I don’t like at all.” Scott Williams, the coach’s son, actually had some very telling comments in the article – some of which could have even been considered Freudian slips. “It’s not that Carolina’s record is spotless,” the younger Williams said. “No one’s record is spotless. But in the past it was much easier to get things taken care of and not have everything play out in such a public forum.”
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With 2013 drawing to a close, it had ultimately proven to be another year of scandals surrounding the athletic/academic infrastructure of UNC, and another year of the university’s leadership refusing to come clean and show full transparency. Public records and documents continued to be withheld from the media, which only prolonged the likely eventual emergence of more damning information in the future. As it was, the tide would take a major turn when the calendar rolled over to 2014. Once relegated to the local North Carolina sports and academic scenes, the story garnered national attention in a big way as the New Year began.
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The essential (and unanswered) questions:
-- Even with a prodigious amount of new and incriminating evidence that clearly suggested widespread athletic/academic fraud, why was the scandal at UNC still not a concern to the NCAA as 2013 came to an end?
-- Did UNC not seek reinstatement for P.J. Hairston in an attempt to specifically avoid further scrutiny from the NCAA – scrutiny which might have spilled over to other players and/or earlier athletic seasons?
-- Considering the fact that UNC was already on probation following its multiple infractions from several years earlier, why didn’t the impermissible benefits received by McDonald and Hairston trigger immediate repercussions from the NCAA?