March Madness is college basketball’s annual shining moment,
and few schools have shone as bright or as long as the
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels have
been in 18 Final Fours and won the national championship five
times, most recently in 2009.
But today, UNC’s athletics are also known for something else
entirely: a massive academic fraud scheme. In Cheated: The
UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of
Big-Time College Sports, UNC history professor Jay Smith
and Mary Willingham, who worked with UNC’s athletes for as a
learning specialist, detail the scheme and attempts to cover it
They tell NPR’s Robert Siegel how the scheme worked and how
many participating faculty members explain their involvement.
On how the scheme worked
Mary Willingham: Students were steered, or
enrolled, by academic counselors — academic advisors that
worked in the Athletic Department — to a lot of “paper classes”
that were offered in the African-American Studies Department.
And we traced the history of this system back, in the book, to
the fall of 1988. I worked in the Academic Support Program for
Student-Athletes from 2003 to 2010 and I became aware of this
system shortly after I arrived. …
We told athletes to [go] to the African-American Studies
Department, to the office manager, and get a prompt. And they
would then go to the library or, with our assistance, just cut
and paste from online material, or we would put something up on
the screen that they would copy. And then they would just turn
it in. No one really ever read them. They were always graded A
On a course in which the professor only considered test
questions the student answered – so if a student only answered
11 questions out of 20, he was graded out of 11
Willingham: That was in our School of Ed, of
all departments. [In] the School of Education, we had a
gentleman who taught a class — it was about public schools and
about public education and about education here in North
Carolina. So ironic. Many, many athletes over the years took
this class because it only met one night a week for three
hours. Many of them slept through it or left at the break. And
then there was just one test at the end and you really only had
to answer the questions that you knew or you thought you knew.
And you would get a C or a B or an A. It depended on if he
liked you or not. You know, you needed to make nice with him,
too. It was ridiculous.
Jay Smith: Basketball players in particular
are rumored to have done yard work for this professor, to have
had dinner at his house. He was very, very chummy with the
athletes. That phenomenon of the “friendly faculty” member is
universal. Every campus has some. And they represent curricular
weak spots — soft spots that will be taken advantage of
On the common feeling among “friendly faculty” that
they’re helping student-athletes get through a doubly difficult
Willingham: I worked with a lot of people, and
I actually felt that way for a long time myself. I felt like at
least I was, you know, giving the opportunity to these young
men to come to college and have some sort of a college
experience and play their sport, which they were happy doing.
So yes, I understand the sentiment. I understand the feelings.
But I’m a mother. I have three kids and I wouldn’t want anyone
to treat them the way that these young men — and the way that I
participated in this system of fraud — I wouldn’t want my kids
to be treated this way.
On the difference between what happened at UNC and the
easy classes any student might take
Willingham: The difference is that we needed
to keep players eligible. These students … their transcripts
are littered with other pass-through classes in drama, in
geology, in philosophy. Not just, you know, like maybe you or I
where we had some of those classes but we still had a major and
got a decent education. The NCAA and its member institutions
are promising these athletes a world-class education and that’s
not what they’re getting at all. Not even close.
On how much the Chapel Hill academic community knew
about the scheme
Smith: There were varying levels of awareness.
I mean, there were plenty of academics — the majority, I would
say, across the campus — who knew nothing at all. But there
were plenty others in and around that department who had
administrative contact with that department in one way or
another, who had to have been aware in one way or another. And
some administrators, some deans, surely had to have suspected
that something was amiss. But it was more convenient to look
the other way.
On what sets the UNC scheme apart from what other
universities have done to keep their athletes playing
Smith: We’re No. 1 … let’s get that
straight: UNC is No. 1. But these pressures are applied to
university faculties all over the country — faculties and
administrators — because it’s the same game being played. What
I think sets off the UNC case, in addition to being such a
long-running scandal — 20 years plus — is that our
administrative leadership has been exceptionally reluctant to
admit the meta-cause, the basic cause of all of the fraud,
which is the need to keep athletes eligible. They just won’t
talk about it. …
The current system is a mandate for fraud. It basically
requires fraud and make-believe games.