You’ll note that this article is neither titled “In defense of Rashad McCants” nor “Rashad McCants doesn’t deserve to have his jersey removed.” That first title is an impossibility and the second one is a false statement, as illustrated by my colleague Jay the other day. But, just like in a lot of cases, just because he deserves having his jersey taken down doesn’t mean that the University should actually carry it out.
This comes down to optics. No matter what McCants says about the University, its basketball program, his teammates, or his coaches, he’s still just one individual. After refusing to take part in several investigations, he doesn’t even have the power of the law or the NCAA behind him. His name doesn’t even mean anything outside of the University’s scandal; he wasn’t the best or most noteworthy player on the teams he played for at UNC, and his professional career hasn’t exactly been one to write home about.
The only public support he has is from people whose primary driving force in life is seeing UNC burn, and while certain parts of the Internet make this population seem bigger than it is, the truth is that it’s a pretty small minority of sports fans. Meanwhile, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is an institution with enormous power: it’s an elite school in both academics and athletics, it’s the oldest public university in the United States, and is generally highly visible.
I would wager that more than half of Americans know what UNC is, and that is beyond a conservative estimate. I don’t think I could say the same about McCants. And an institution going after an individual never looks good, regardless of the morality of the situation (see also: Mary Willingham and the national reception thereof). A move by the University to try and dishonor him would likely garner more sympathy than anything else.
It also looks a lot like a cover-up, even though it wouldn’t be. Imagine the scene: McCants claims that University tutors wrote all his papers. In response, UNC takes his jersey down from the rafters, hiding the fact that he played at UNC (yes, the information would be easily available, but the imagined symbolism is the important part).
It’s not how the situation would be, but to those not closely familiar with the situation, it’s certainly how it could look. The University has done a lot since the academic scandal broke to rehabilitate its image, including firing many of the involved faculty and staff, renaming the AFAM department to AAAD, reaching out to former athletes to tell them that if they want, they can come back to the University to finish their degrees, paid for by UNC, hiring Kenneth Wainstein to conduct a thorough investigation of the University’s practices that led to the oversight at the middle of the scandal, and creating a publicly available website for all matters related to the scandal at http://carolinacommitment.unc.edu/.
They have been extremely open in their acknowledgement of the problems and their commitment to fixing them. The last thing the University needs is to do something that would seem even a little like obfuscation (and before anybody mentions UNC’s responses to the NCAA’s Notices of Allegation, UNC has provided the NCAA with all the information they can. They have been rightfully obstinate in their stance that it is an internal matter that is being fixed internally and that the NCAA has no business in, but they have been transparent).
Let’s go back to the point about UNC financially providing for former athletes being able to finish their degrees. It’s a good-faith move, one that says the University is committed to the education of anybody to whom they offer a scholarship. McCants has, of course, refused to take advantage of this, proving his lack of commitment to the cause of education. As it stands, the University looks to be in the right and McCants looks like the vindictive, conceited, blame-shifting, blusterer that he is. We should think twice before supporting a move that might change that.
A secondary argument is that the jerseys in the Dean Smith Center are about basketball achievements. There is a strict set of criteria by which the program honors athletes, and it can be found here. McCants met one of the criteria, and therefore got his jersey up. There are a lot of ways by which the University honors and remembers former athletes, first and foremost being the Carolina Basketball Museum. There are ways for the University to simultaneously thank McCants for his service to the program and condemn his statements since he has left it.
The jersey can stay up as a marker that on the court, he was one of several outstanding basketball players who wore Tar Heel Blue. But maybe his name could be removed from jersey #32, or an asterisk put by his name in all official UNC media that comes out with his name on it, so that it is clear that his name isn’t quite in the same air as those that surround his jersey.
It’s not fair to erase him from UNC Basketball history, as attractive as that option may be. He came, he played, we won a championship. His play earned having his jersey put up. I think that part is irrevocable. Everything that he’s done and said since is shameful and should be condemned, but I think it’d be better done without the wholesale removal of his jersey.
Besides, isn’t dissociation from UNC what McCants really wants? He’s made it abundantly clear that he holds no respect for the program, its coaches, or the University as a whole. If nothing else, I posit that UNC should keep McCants’ jersey up out of good old Southern “bless your heart” spite. Make it clear that the University is willing to keep a hand of forgiveness out, knowing that McCants will never take it.
No matter how much he tries to distance himself from the University, his jersey can stay up as a reminder that the Tar Heel Family is legitimate and, just like every family, has its bad apples but accepts them anyways. UNC can safely take the high road here, knowing they’ll be alone up there.