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UNC, SACS, and misinformation exposed

UNC posts a letter from the SACS President, and the N&O gets called out.

Al Hood

On Tuesday, the official Twitter for UNC unexpectedly posted a letter that they received from the President of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, better known as SACS. The group is the accreditation agency that has given UNC the power to grant degrees, and the letter was in response to some questions that had been raised by...well, I think Dr. Wheelan puts it well:

This is quite an extraordinary letter, as the leader of an accreditation agency felt compelled to essentially apologize for even the idea that UNC was still in trouble for the class issue that has dogged the university for years.

The question is, though, why did the SACS head have to even send this in the first place? Well, as she states, Dan Kane reported in a piece for a “North Carolina newspaper” that despite not getting any punishments for the NCAA, Carolina could face additional academic punishments with the findings of the Committee on Infractions. The tone of the article would have lead people to believe that SACS initiated the review and asked for the NCAA findings.

It’s a huge assertion, and one that could keep the story of the scandal alive for both the paper and Kane. Deadspin ended up picking up the story, and on Monday, Kane was using this story to speak to WUNC’s State of Things, expounding about the punishment that UNC would receive:

In effect Kane is asserting that his conversation with SACS confirmed for him that they were going to levy more punishment to the University.

Even before the letter, this assertion seems false. SACS already punished UNC based on the Wainstein Report, including probation that Carolina had already freed themselves of. There wasn’t any new information that came out of the NCAA Investigation, so it’s difficult to understand why SACS would have felt compelled to punish UNC again unless they were upset about the way Carolina defended itself.

The truth, then, is in the letter. It turns out that while there wasn’t anything new, UNC had submitted this information to SACS, rather than make it seem like they were trying to hide anything from the accreditation agency after their probation was over. SACS never asked for it. As far as SACS was concerned, this case was closed. Kane was trying to approach this from the idea that any school has to, essentially, renew their accreditation and that UNC may have trouble doing so based on “new” information.

Dr. Wheelan makes it about a clear as she can that since they didn’t ask for the information and they had no reason to look at it, the NCAA findings weren’t really a high priority for them. This alone makes the letter from her out of the ordinary, as she is admitting that despite the huge publicity around the result, SACS hadn’t been moved to dig into the NCAA Investigation. It could have stopped there and been a huge swat to Kane and his premise.

However, Dr. Wheelan goes further to explain that since the article already has misconstrued what she said, she figured she better read this report. Clearly, if this reporter is going to allude to the idea that the NCAA Investigation had turned something up to hurt UNC’s chances of reaffirmation, then eventually someone will want to know if SACS agrees. As she states:

After reading the newspaper article, I spent the weekend reading the NCAA report and I have found no issues of non-compliance with our Principles; therefore, there is no reason to reopen the investigation. I do not believe the actions of the NCAA impact the decision previously made by the SACSCOC Board.

In other words, “You’re fine, it’s over.”

What does this mean?

First and foremost, while the decision by the NCAA on October 13th seemed to end everything related to the scandal, the letter on Tuesday put the final stamp on it. The NCAA isn’t going to punish Carolina, and SACS doesn’t think that Carolina’s defense to the NCAA warranted further punishment beyond what has already been served. The importance of this can’t be overstated, as thanks to the dust stirred up by Kane, that doubt had creeped in. Let’s not bury that lede here, as this letter tells us that all of this is, mercifully, over.

That said, the letter also put a spotlight on an issue that has crept up multiple times during this whole ordeal. The reason there was any doubt at all was because of a premise by Dan Kane. He had an idea, talked to Dr. Wheelan, got what he wanted out of the conversation, and wrote a piece that misrepresented that conversation in order to drive that idea.

It’s difficult to view what Kane did in any other light, because a simple misunderstanding could have been cleared up with a phone call. For Dr. Wheelan to bypass this, read the information, confirm that there was no new information, and write a letter directly to UNC that she knows would be made public, highlights just how she felt about what Kane did. She also felt compelled to call him out by name and highlight just how badly he had misrepresented the conversation. Dr. Wheelen is saying that, In effect, Kane dropped a smoke bomb, asked someone if they saw the smoke, and then wrote the story of a massive fire with a witness confirming the fire happened. The story was completely of his making.

For fans of Carolina, this maneuver by Kane is nothing new. Doc Kennedy, formerly of Tar Heel Blog, put it best:

This story and the resulting admonition from SACS makes it appear that Kane and the N&O has an agenda they need to serve, and they wrote this story to serve that agenda. This time, Kane and the paper were caught misaconstruing the story leading to that embarrassing admonition.

As has been stated before, there was enough to this story that had Kane gone where the story led him, he would have had good enough stuff as it was. Indeed, in the beginning you could argue Kane did just that. Somewhere along the way, though, it became accepted fact that the athletic department had to have been at the root of all of this. This was an opinion, but that opinion was taken as fact in the pieces written. It’s what led Kane to get catfished so brilliantly by The Count, because he was looking to confirm the opinion he had, not find facts and draw out conclusions.

The particularly galling thing about all of this is that despite being so publicly called out on a falsehood, the N&O has yet to either print a retraction or have Kane apologize for misconstruing a conversation he had with Dr. Wheelan. To date, Kane has not really said one word about his side of the story, and left his future coworker to take the heat for him.

At least Carter was willing to take the heat, although the resulting blowback he took for Kane had him admitting he needed to step away from Twitter for a good part of Wednesday.

It puts the N&O in a tough spot, because their propensity to exaggerate stories related to the UNC affair has now been put out for everyone to see, and that exaggeration was confirmed by a subject of the story that was thought to be favorable to them. The story now reads as a desperate attempt to keep something alive that is done, and has been done for a month. While critics of UNC will probably not recognize this, UNC fans will have hard proof to point to.

It also hits at the heart at the journalistic integrity the paper has. Newspapers in general are in enough trouble without being caught essentially making up stories based on, at best, misunderstood conversations. If one of the only local papers left can’t be trusted to report on a story correctly, that is, where the facts of the story lead them, then what else are they misleading about? If they were to expose a state government scandal, critics could rightfully point to this story as an example of them making up news in order to drive a narrative.

It’s why you never let an opinion drive your story, but let the facts take you where it leads you. The problem always has been that once no further link between academics and athletics could be discovered despite numerous reports and FOIA requests, Kane and the N&O were stuck with a theory they couldn’t prove. It led to rehashes of the same theme, and a frustration that seeped into the articles, finally leading to this instance where Kane heard what he wanted to hear and misrepresented what was actually happening.

The question from here is if the N&O finally gives up the ghost and moves on. This story is done, both the NCAA and SACS have very publicly said so. It’s clear Kane and the N&O have gotten to the point to where they won’t apologize for their mistake, so fans shouldn’t hold their breath for one. We’re ready to move on, is the N&O ready to try and repair their reputation?