HBO's "Real Sports" Latest to Swing at UNC Pinata

And the hits just keep on coming.

The latest media outlet to sink its teeth into the academic mess at UNC is HBO's award-winning "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel." The episode debuting tonight features a segment by reporter Bernard Goldberg called "Gaming the System" in which the show looks at the multi-million dollar business of academic support for athletes. Goldberg profiles athletic academic support programs at UNC, Oklahoma, and Memphis during the segment.

Specifically, the portion of the piece on UNC includes commentary by Mary Willingham and also contains interviews with two former UNC football players, Michael McAdoo and Bryon Bishop. Of course by now anyone who has followed the UNC academic scandal knows the whistleblowing star Willingham as well as McAdoo, who was essentially patient zero in exposing the academic mess when his plagiarized paper was released as part of a lawsuit regarding his ineligibility. Bishop was a part-time starter on the UNC team from 2004-2008.


As of this writing, I have not yet seen the segment. Those who have say it does not paint a flattering picture for UNC, OU, or Memphis, and it was noted one OU professor noted that he felt pressure to pass athletes in order to keep his job. However in the teaser trailer released by HBO, both McAdoo and Bishop note that they were steered into the Afro-American Studies major at UNC, in essence being told what classes they would take and what they would major in.

And therein lies the problem as it relates to diagnosis and analysis of the specific problem at UNC, and more important, defining remedy for those problems. At UNC, the shoddy way the AFAM department was being run led to academic malfeasance that helped student-athletes. The initial question was whether or not that malfeasance was specifically designed to keep student-athletes eligible or whether that was just an added bonus. From there were Willingham's claims about the supposed illiteracy of student-athletes at UNC, which led to a discussion of the college readiness of athletes in general. These are two distinct, yet tangentially related, issues. The "Real Sports" piece purports to deal with the second question but adds in a heavy dose of the first, at least in the trailer.

The other issue that is raised, at least in the trailer, is that some UNC athletes were directed to AFAM, seemingly against their wishes. The problem there would seem to be that, if UNC was trying to use AFAM as a crutch major to keep athletes eligible, they weren't doing it very well. Even Dan Kane's own research showed that AFAM made up a relatively small fraction of football players' majors.

At the risk of shooting the messenger, I do think it is important to add context to the people prominently featured in the HBO segment. Of course the star is Willingham, who has now been afforded celebrity whistleblower status. Her role in all this has been well-documented, but given the fact that she will soon be pushing a book authored with noted athletic critic and UNC professor Jay Smith, it is important for her to keep out front and pushing her message even as doubt is cast on her research methods on her initial assertion.

(As an aside, I try to imagine the treatment of Willingham in the media like Chicken Little would be treated. Chicken Little reported that the sky is falling, and that notion was debunked. But since some things do actually fall from the sky, like rain, well now Chicken Little is an expert on rain. But I digress...)

I think it is interesting that McAdoo has flipped from perpetrator to victim in the academic scandal. It was McAdoo's plagiarized paper that opened the floodgates on Jennifer Wiley and later the entire AFAM mess. It's funny how McAdoo's college readiness was never an issue when he was pursuing his eligibility and later suing UNC, but now that pro football didn't pan out, he has become one of the new faces on the Willingham side of the equation.

And if you've never heard of Bryon Bishop, you're likely not alone. He was an offensive lineman at UNC in an injury-plagued career from 2004-2008 and earned a degree in Afro-American Studies in 2008. Perhaps Bishop's biggest splash in the sports world came in 2009 when he filed a class-action lawsuit against EA Sports and the NCAA for using his likeness in video games without permission or compensation. Sound familiar? It should, because it is very much like the suit filed by Ed O'Bannon in which Willingham has provided testimony.

Again, the point of this is not to shoot the messenger but to illustrate the key players in the story as it relates to UNC have some sort of skin in the game.  And I do not want to delve too much into the content of the piece without having seen it. But these are the kinds of gut punches UNC has taken, and will continue to absorb, even as we stray from the root causes of the academic issues and the solutions already implemented and those that need to continue to be explored. Bishop was last a student in 2008 and McAdoo in 2011; Willingham has not worked with athletes at UNC in almost four years. As much as the systemic issues at UNC have been laid bare, it seems there would be at least some interest in how UNC has learned from these mistakes and worked to better serve its student-athletes. But no one seems particularly interested in speaking to, say, Bradley Bethel, who now holds Willingham's old job and wrote about how the systems and culture at UNC have changed. Still, the once-proud UNC brand has now become the face of all that is wrong in academics and college athletics, even if they are doing it far better than they ever did before. It will be interesting to see how UNC (and the other featured schools) fare during the "Real Sports" treatment.

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