UNC Football: Scandal or Scapegoat?

A deeper look at the controversial documentary, Unverified

By Jonathan Shuping

September 7, 2016

One of the unwritten laws of being a sports fan is: Defend your team no matter what. When Cam Newton ripped down that Packers banner in BofA Stadium last season, the talking heads, along with fans of all 31 other NFL teams booed and hissed and hated, but Panther fans beamed with pride. We never want to believe our players could commit an alleged crime, but if someone from another team is accused we are quick to judge them guilty. Opinions about the recent academic scandal at the University of North Carolina are no different. North Carolinians either unabashedly love UNC or they hate it with a fiery passion, but everyone who was born here or lived here for long enough has an opinion regarding the Tar Heels.

It all started in the summer of 2010 when Marvin Austin’s infamous tweet about popping bottles in a South Beach night club raised eyebrows. That led to an NCAA investigation which found evidence of impermissible benefits being given to players, illegal contact with agents, and a tutor who had written papers for athletes. Since gold had been struck, the digging of course had to continue and that resulted in the discovery of the African and Afro-American Studies department’s “no-show” classes which were listed as lectures but didn’t actually meet, requiring only a term paper to be submitted for a final grade.  


Now, most people are not willing to wade through the 131 pages of legalese in the Wainstein Report (the internal investigation conducted by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein) or the NCAA’s 59-page notice of allegations or even to use common sense to understand the nuances involved in such a scandal. Either they’re cheaters or not and, in the court of public opinion, it’s guilty until proven innocent. No matter which side of the fence you fall on, whether your allegiance lies with UNC or ABC (Anybody But Carolina), if you really want the truth as I saw it, watch the documentary Unverified: The Untold Story Behind the UNC Scandal.

Full disclosure: I am a UNC grad, so I’ve had my share of blue cups at He’s Not, Holy Grails at Players, and late-night burritos from Cosmic Cantina. My plan to propose to my unsuspecting wife after drinking from the Old Well was foiled when she declared, “I’m not drinking out of that. People from State come up here to pee in it.” I also took a few “paper classes”– now more often referred to by the media as “sham classes”– though when I registered for them they were simply called independent studies. They did not meet for lectures, but they absolutely required reading, research and a good amount of work, and I made less than an A in more than one of them. But I was not an athlete, so no one cared.

Unverified director Bradley Bethel was a writing tutor and reading specialist for UNC football student-athletes for four years and his insider’s perspective is an eye-opening experience. Plenty of heads rolled as a result of the scandal including AFAM department head Julius Nyang’oro, head football coach Butch Davis, athletic director Dick Baddour, and chancellor Holden Thorp, but there were also other scapegoats whose terminations did not make for such sensational headlines. It’s the firing of these former academic support counselors that drives Bethel’s mission to uncover what really happened.

From left to right: Sebastian Diaz (Editor), Ned Phillips (DP & Editor), Bradley Bethel (Writer & Director), Connie Lo Ferrara (Producer), and Ed Barnes (Story Consultant)

At times, Unverified feels like more of a political thriller than a documentary and, like Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men, Bethel gets stonewalled again and again by reporters, investigators, and administrators. Still, he’s able to land interviews with plenty of faculty and former football players as well as Jay Bilas, Butch Davis, and even a former UNC chancellor. These sitdowns raise some of the common sense questions that the public seemingly doesn’t consider like: Why should we be suspicious of African-American athletes who express interest in independent studies in African history and Swahili over, for example, lecture classes on Ancient Rome and French? Should it really be surprising that many African Americans are more interested in classes relevant to their ethnic heritage, regardless of how rigorous? Doesn’t any student, not just athletes, seek out easier classes, especially when they have a rigorous schedule that semester? Isn’t it the job of an academic adviser to guide students to classes they can pass and not set them up to fail?

Unverified perfectly conveys what most pro-UNC folks have been screaming to whoever will listen which is, basically, don’t blindly swallow the narrative the media is feeding you, and that this is an academic scandal, not an athletic one. The paper classes were not secret nor were they created for athletes for the sake of eligibility. The latest response from the athletic department to the allegations argued that the NCAA‘s jurisdiction covers only athletic compliance and therefore they have no authority to rule over an issue involving the quality of an academic course. Only time will tell if the NCAA agrees.


For all of the ways Unverified vindicates UNC athletes, it is not at all uncritical of the university as an institution. There was an obvious lack of oversight that allowed the flawed system to go on for far too long and their handling of the situation was a major blunder, not only from a PR standpoint, but because some non-complicit individuals were thrown under the bus while tenured others emerged unscathed.  

For years it seemed like it was the media attacking UNC. A big-time athletic conspiracy makes for much juicier click bait material than a complicated academic fraud story perpetrated by people the general public has never heard of before. In the end, it looks like maybe the university was fine with letting athletics take the blame.

As a new college football season begins, the Tar Heels are still not fully clear of the six-year cloud of NCAA doom that’s lingered overhead. The situation will most likely remain unresolved for another few months but eventually the always unpredictable NCAA will dole out their punishment. Whatever it is, UNC fans and ABCers will surely disagree. The media will move on to the next oversimplified moral outrage. Student-athletes will still struggle to balance work in the classroom and on the field. And the NCAA and its member institutions will still make billions off of their efforts.

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