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Butch, The Tutor, and Academic Support

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... oh my.

Robbi Pickeral and Ken Tysiac of the combined ChaRaleigh Observer and Observer sports staff published an article on Sunday in which they highlight communication breakdowns and a feeling of an inability to share potential problems with football coaches that may have led to the lack of detection of academic issues within the UNC football program.

Also mentioned in the article is the propriety of the relationship between former tutor Jennifer Wiley, Carolina football players, and Butch Davis' son, Drew, for whom Wiley was hired as an "academic coach".

John Blanchard, the senior associate athletic director who oversees student-athlete services, offered the observation that it was "not unusual" for academic support personnel, including those at UNC, to be apprehensive about raising troubling issues with head coaches.

At the center of the piece is Cynthia Reynolds, who worked with the football program for seven years before being reassigned to Olympic sports and ultimately not renewed in August of this year. Reynolds says that she was worried in particular about the relationship between Wiley and the Davis family, given that the relationship seemed to be growing beyond the distance required of tutors in the athletic department.

Specifically, Reynolds says she felt that her job would be in jeopardy if she went to Butch Davis with her concerns about Wiley.

There are three issues in play here: First, there are the potential systemic communication issues within the academic support program that might hinder detection of academic impropriety; second is the role of Cynthia Reynolds in academic support and the factors that led to her reassignment; and third, the appropriateness of someone in the employ of the school in academic support also working for a head coach.

As for first part, the article by Pickeral and Tysiac is light on details about how the systemic issues might have contributed to the specific academic issues at UNC, other than to note how, in general, academic support people are afraid to raise concerns with head coaches. It is pretty easy to see how this could be the case, given that a $35,000-a-year academic supervisor holds the future of NFL or NBA draft picks in their hands and this person has to potentially tell a coach who makes 10 or even 100 times what they do that a star player is not cutting it in the classroom.

The larger issue, and one that has been discussed here, is the apparent breakdown in communication as it related specifically to Jennifer Wiley and her termination from academic support. It has been previously reported that Butch Davis inquired as to the status of Wiley and was given an all-clear, when obviously things were not all clear.

The second issue revolves around the allegations of Cynthia Reynolds as it relates to both Butch Davis and the University. Reynolds says she feared for her job if she shared her concerns about how close Wiley was getting to the Davis family. Davis responded that academic support is an entirely separate entity even from the athletic department (it falls under the auspices of the College of Arts and Sciences) and therefore had no say in Reynolds' job status. While that may technically be true, one would be naive to think that someone of Davis' stature could not make Reynolds' job disappear with a well-placed word.

Reynolds also has claimed age discrimination in her reassignment away from the football team and ultimately her non-renewal in academic support. She claims Davis wanted someone younger than the 56 year-old Reynolds as the face of UNC's football academic support program. Reynolds, who was replaced by then 29-year old Beth Bridger in the football position, appealed her non-renewal to UNC officials, but her grievance was denied. She has since filed another complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The problem with Reynolds' claims of discrimination are that UNC has countered that she mis-advised a football player in 2008, leading to a declaration of academic ineligibility that had to be addressed by the NCAA. School officials also claim that in July 2009 she was responsible for 18 entering freshman football players not having enough summer school credits and jeopardizing their eligibility. In both instances, the NCAA did not penalize the student-athletes and restored their eligibility because they did not believe the issues were their fault.

Reynolds does not deny these events but says they were not entirely her fault and were the result of systemic failures. On the other hand, a reasonable person can connect the dots that her mis-steps on the eligibility of 19 separate players in just one year might have led to her reassignment and ultimate dismissal. Our friends at NC State will remind us to check the motivation of the academic people, since they often claim ulterior motive on the part of Hugh Fuller, who was head of State's tutoring program during the dark academic troubles of the Jim Valvano era and provided damning evidence of academic impropriety within the Wolfpack basketball program 20 years ago.

Finally, there is the issue of the appropriateness of Davis employing Wiley in the first place. Chancellor Holden Thorp has spoken out against this relationship, and the article notes other schools, including NC State, have prohibitions against such relationships and that at least one school, Oklahoma, has recently instituted such a prohibition specifically in response to the situation at UNC. On the other hand, it's not as if Butch Davis has hidden the fact he employed student tutors. He asked for recommendations before he did it and UNC's academic people offered suggestions. It's not like UNC was in the dark about what he was doing.

Whether or not Davis should have hired a tutor for his son who was also tutoring football players is not up for debate - he should not have - but that is an easy decision to make in hindsight. I will go so far as to defend Davis on this count: there was no school prohibition against hiring Wiley in that capacity, he did not attempt to hire her under the table, and he did vet her after she was let go, so an argument of  due diligence can be made. There are plenty of other things I will not give Davis a pass for, but this one at least falls in the "understandable" category.

Pickeral and Tysiac also note that UNC informed Wiley after she was not renewed that if she continued to give assistance to players that she could jeopardize players' eligibility, but there was no procedure in place to follow up to ensure she stayed away from them, a situation made even more difficult by the fact she had already graduated by that point. Again, this is a systemic issue but also appears to be something UNC had just never thought of.

So what does all this mean? This is not really any new information, as the fact that Wiley was not retained because she was too close to players was already revealed. Cynthia Reynolds in essence is trying to paint herself as a whistleblower who was afraid she would be fired it she spoke out, but it would seem her own incompetence was as much a reason for her ultimately losing her job. It is also important to note Reynolds is seeking a significant compensation package from UNC to settle her discrimination claim. And it now seems UNC informed Wiley not to help players and yet she did so anyway, adding to the "rogue tutor" idea.

Draw from this information what you will. Depending on your view of the situation and the people involved, either this is proof that, in this instance anyway, Butch Davis really didn't know what was going on; or this is proof of a renegade program where coaches intimidate lowly academic support people and tutors are thrown under the bus. At the end of the day, Butch Davis may lose his job as football coach at Carolina, but it will not be for this.