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Willingham Leaks AFAM Grades of 2005 Title Team

On the heels of the Rashad McCants interview on ESPN's "Outside the Lines", Mary Willingham leaks enrollments and grades in AFAM aberrant classes by selected members of UNC's 2005 NCAA championship team.

Roy Williams probably wishes he could just focus on his putting this summer
Roy Williams probably wishes he could just focus on his putting this summer

From the "no way is this a coincidence" department, Dan Kane of the News and Observer ran a piece on Friday night in which former UNC learning specialist Mary Willingham details the specific course enrollments and grades earned by selected members of the 2005 national championship team.

According to the article:

Data she provided to The News & Observer show that five members of that team, including at least four key players, accounted for a combined 38 enrollments in classes that have been identified as confirmed or suspected lecture classes that never met. The data also show that the five athletes accounted for 13 enrollments that were accurately identified as independent studies.

Those classes are also suspect because for much of the last decade, the department offered far more independent studies than it could properly supervise, previous reviews have shown.

It is somewhat difficult to place this on the Richter scale of revelations. It has already been determined that at least seven members of the 2005 team were AFAM majors: McCants, Sean May, Jackie Manuel, Melvin Scott, Reyshawn Terry, Quentin Thomas, and Jawad Williams. Given that  the AFAM department was offering aberrant classes, it stands to reason that there will be a number of enrollments in questionable classes at least among these seven players. More likely these revelations will resonate because it draws the basketball program fully into the muck of the academic scandal.

As with anything released by Willingham, however, there are significant questions and inconsistencies:

The N&O says Willingham did not provide the names of players to match to the grades and classes (or as I tweeted, NOW she has apparently learned how to de-identify data). In April she tweeted that the five starters plus another player on the 2005 team had accounted for 69 enrollments in "paper classes". That certainly allows for identifying particular players, especially given that May, McCants, Scott, Manuel, and Williams were AFAM majors, leaving only starter Raymond Felton, a communications major. But the data in Friday's article now says "five members of that team, including at least four key players". How did we go from six in April to only five in June?

There is only a list of the players' enrollment and grades in aberrant classes. There is no context provided as to when the classes were taken and what impact it might have had on their eligibility. Moreover, without complete transcripts, there is no way to tell whether or not the aberrant classes were used to prop up academic deficiencies. Sean May is a clear example of this. While his admission to the Indianapolis Star that he dropped his communications double major to only AFAM because it was easier is held as emblematic of the academic fraud, he did that after he left UNC, so he clearly did not need the paper classes to remain eligible while playing.

The list of questionable classes includes some identified by Willingham herself as not requiring class meetings but not otherwise identified in any of the academic reviews. Oh really? So now Willingham gets to say whether or not a course actually met nearly a decade ago, even if the Baker-Tilly review of every class section offered in AFAM didn't make that determination?

Perhaps most significant for interpreting this particular data set, is that one of the suspect classes is listed as AFRI 396, an independent studies class with three enrollments. The problem is that course number would not have existed prior to the Fall 2006 semester, when UNC changed their course numbering system. So those three enrollments would have had to have taken place that fall or later, three semesters after the national title was won. We know that Manuel, Scott, and Williams graduated in 2005, and McCants clearly never took another course at UNC, but May did come back to finish his degree. So either May took the same class multiple times for credit, or her data set includes Thomas and Terry. This would be significant because the Martin Report indicated the aberrant enrollments in AFAM peaked in 2005-06, after the four mentioned above would have left UNC. But without tying specific players to specific classes, it is ultimately impossible to determine if she cherry-picked her data set.

So in the end, what does this all mean? First, it provides concrete confirmation of what was known all along, that basketball players were enrolled in aberrant classes. No one has ever disputed this, but this does serve to drench basketball with the same academic slime that had largely been confined to football. Of course, highlighting the 2005 team gives credence to the banner chasers because since Thomas left there has only been one AFAM major in basketball, keeping the 2009 title team off the academic radar. Of course, it is very likely that members of the 2002 team were also enrolled in aberrant classes but no one is interested in bringing down an 8-20 team.

Second, it was only a matter of time before Mary Willingham went Edward Snowden and started releasing this kind of information. Much of the initial response to her divulging this information to Kane has questioned whether or not this is a Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) violation, and the answer is, not really. FERPA binds institutions, not individuals, so it is UNC who is on the hook for doing things in an official capacity. When someone goes rogue like Willingham, there is not much the university can do, especially since she no longer works at UNC and her job can't be held over her. Some have also questioned her statement to the Daily Tar Heel that she did not have any transcripts but did have academic documents that she shared with independent investigator Kenneth Wainstein. The N&O article takes great pains not to call what was provided to them "transcripts" but I don't know what else you would call a historical record of courses taken and grades received.

Third, I think this pretty much shreds Willingham's "I'm doing this for the kids" argument. There is no legitimate educational purpose served in releasing this information to the media except to advance her own cause and possibly chase a banner, which has been her partner Jay Smith's stated goal. We are now over nine years removed from these events and the system under which academic fraud was allowed to occur clearly no longer exists. There is also the question of who provided Outside The Lines with the second copy of McCants' transcript. It seems pretty convenient that she is able to provide information to Kane at the same time OTL obtains a transcript from a "source".

Fourth, other than bringing the white-hot spotlight to basketball, it really doesn't provide any further insight into the core issue, which is were the aberrant classes created for the purpose of propping up athletic eligibility? Identifying which group (if not individual) basketball players were enrolled in no-show classes does not change the fact that over 60% of the students enrolled in aberrant classes were not athletes. Moreover, no one, including McCants, has suggested that players enrolled in the no-show classes did not complete the (albeit minimal) work requirements. Ultimately at the end of the day, that is the big issue: will UNC face sanctions for the AFAM scandal, up to and including putting the 2005 title in jeopardy? We are clearly past the statute of limitations but that is not to say the NCAA consistently follows even its own rules and couldn't gin up a reason to go retroactive. Again, given that UNC has already faced a penalty for the football portion of the scandal and the system of paper classes no longer exists, the only reason to continue down this rabbit hole is to try to bring down a banner.

The other interesting thing to note here is the coordination of both sides over the past 24 hours. Clearly UNC was ready for the McCants interview, as apparently OTL had been chasing Sean May for weeks for comment and the refutation of his remarks by his teammates was disseminated within hours of the interview airing on ESPN. Meanwhile Kane indicated in his article that he had been seeking comment from members of the 2005 team for a few weeks, meaning he has had this information for a while and it would seem that he held it until the McCants interview aired to bring maximum effect.

The end result of the timing of these two items will likely blur the lines between what McCants alleged in his OTL interview and what was actually revealed in the Kane piece. McCants made four main points: that he took paper classes to retain his eligibility, that he rarely went to class, that tutors wrote his papers, and that he thinks Roy Williams knew all about the academic fraud. My guess is that it will be very easy to blend McCants' claim that he took paper classes to remain eligible during the championship season (a claim which, if his grades presented in the OTL piece are accurate, doesn't seem to hold up) with the revelation that others on the team took paper classes into a narrative that many players took these classes to remain eligible.

And so now we will await the Wainstein report with even more anticipation and hope that will answer some of the questions these allegations and implications have not.