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Film Review: "Unverified"

The UNC academic-athletic scandal has been going on for over five years now, and now there is a rebuttal to the local and national narrative of what happened in Chapel Hill.

Bradley Bethel, the former UNC learning specialist who became the face of the unofficial opposition to the findings of Mary Willingham and the reporting of Dan Kane and Sara Ganim, released his crowd-sourced documentary "Unverified: The Untold Story Behind the UNC Scandal" on Friday night, and it delivered its message in an unexpected way.

Bethel first splashed onto the scene with his take-down of Willingham's claims and has gone on the offensive for the University in general and for his former employer, the Academic Support Program for Student Athletes at UNC in particular at his blog, Coaching the Mind. He has been forceful and demonstrative online, and has even been combative as he has been attacked, such as Jay Smith once describing him as "mentally unstable".

That is not the tone of "Unverified", however. The film is subtle and humanizes some of the characters in the UNC scandal who may have only been recognized by their names before. He also brings to light the manner with which the UNC scandal has been reported in the media and highlights some of the concerns of some of the key players in the Wainstein Report.

The film introduces Beth Bridger and Jaimie Lee, the two ASPSA counselors who were fired as a result of the scandal. Bethel does not hide the fact that Bridger and Lee were co-workers and friends, and much of the film focuses on the circumstances surrounding their dismissal. Also featured in the movie are current student-athletes and former football players who cast doubt on the athletic side of the scandal. Of particular note is former football player and College Football Hall of Fame member Dre Bly, who in particular rebuts the claims of Rashad McCants, saying if McCants cheated, that's on him.

Also making appearances in the film are notable media members Will Blythe, Mark Titus, and Jay Bilas. Blythe and Titus testify to the sensationalism of crusading media while Bilas is his usual strong self in condemning the NCAA and placing the scandal squarely on the academic side. Bethel also secured sit-downs with former men's assistant coach Joe Holladay and former football coach Butch Davis, who confirm the academic nature of the scandal.

"Unverified" gets its strength from three interviews in particular. First is a detailed conversation with John Blanchard, the former senior associate athletic director who was thrown under the bus in the Wainstein Report. Blanchard's role and his views of the scandal - and how he was treated by the Wainstein investigation - have not been previously explored. The second key interview is with UNC journalism professor Adam Hochberg, who helps Bethel realize that it was not the media who fired his friends. That is a defining point in the movie, where Bethel is forced to address his assumptions and frustrations and change the focus of his inquiry.

The bombshell, however, is an interview with former Chancellor James Moeser, who was at UNC during the height of the scandal in the early to mid-2000s. Moeser pretty pointedly says it was a failure of academic oversight, and comes dangerously close to touching the third rail, which is that AFAM did not receive proper scrutiny for political correctness purposes. Moeser's opinion of the scandal is one that has not been explored, given his position and the time frame involved.

Rabid blue-blooders who were hoping for a point-by-point rebuttal of Kane, Willingham, Ganim, and Wainstein will be sadly disappointed. Given that Bethel has been no-holds-barred on his blog and in his public appearances, the subtle and soft tone of "Unverified" is likely a surprise. One of the stronger points in the film is the fact that not a single reporter who wrote about the scandal, from Kane to Ganim to Joe Nocera to Paul Barrett to Bernie Goldberg, would speak with Bethel for the movie. The fact that he couldn't get one of  a single one of them on camera makes a strong statement and didn't require Bethel to say a word. There was also a hugely ironic scene where Goldberg says he will not appear in any setting where he is edited, yet his entire job reporting for Real Sports requires editing.

"Unverified" relies a little too much on Bethel to drive the story and his crusade to vindicate Bridger and Lee obscures some of the larger points. In addition, while Bethel highlights the weak evidence Wainstein used to implicate those two in the fraud, he missed an opportunity to explore why they were implicated. In order to be an athletic scandal, someone in athletics or ASPSA had to be knowledgeable of, and complicit in, the fraud. That connection is the smoking gun Dan Kane has been searching for four years with no avail. Wainstein kind of conjured up that connection with Bridger and Lee but Bethel missed the importance of that. Likewise, when Moeser went up to the doorstep of calling the scandal an academic issue and saying AFAM didn't have oversight, Bethel instead chose to focus on getting Moeser to admit maybe Bridger and Lee weren't what Wainstein said they were.

In the end, however, "Unverified" is very well done. Bethel is to be commended for not going for the cinematic equivalent of shouting in all caps on the monkey boards. Neither UNC truthers and banner-chasers nor true blue Carolina Way disciples will be swayed at this point, and Bethel doesn't try to move the needle there. The film shows a human side to those involved in the scandal while introducing doubt to the conclusions of the media and the Wainstein Report, as well as an examination of his own assumptions. This measured contribution to the discussion will likely be more well-received than a nuclear detonation over Kane and Willingham and is a worthwhile view.