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The Athletic Came for UNC Football and Fell Flat

If you’re going to spend nine months on a story, maybe investigating your sources would be a good idea

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 28 Clemson at North Carolina image shot through glass ball

On Monday night, the lead investigative reporter for The Athletic, Armen Keteyian, teased a big story on UNC football to be released the next day. The subject matter was apparently so important that the famously paywalled site would make it free for all to read.

You’d be excused if due to the combination of fear and scandal fatigue you decided to skip reading it and just wait for the reactions. When it was posted, it was revealed to be a expose of research conducted by current Interim Chancellor of UNC, Kevin Guskiewicz.

The very short version of the article is this: Guskiewicz was in charge of ground breaking concussions research at UNC, research that has become the basis for some of the further research conducted and research that has received significant support from the NFL. When combing through the research and the documents that UNC itself put out in its Carolina Commitment site, the article alleges that the research did not account for a high number of athletes that were diagnosed with Learning Disabilities (LD) or Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). It further alleges that these numbers were masked intentionally, without directly saying why, but the implication being that the athletic department at the time didn’t want to admit they were getting their athletes diagnosed with these issues in order to have them prescribed medications that would help them perform on the field. These medications could affect the scans conducted in the research, and as that research is the base of a lot of other concussion research, it could potentially call all of those results into question. There’s also the issue of prescribing medications to someone who doesn’t need them, which is also implied here.

Another implication made here is that Guskiewicz has gotten cozy with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and that would have affected his judgement about this research, as well as allowed him to change his stance on concussions as time has gone on.

On first reading, these are serious allegations. This is both alleging major research fraud on the part of Dr. Guskiewicz and insinuating the prescription of PEDs to student-athletes by the football program. The thing is, these allegations aren’t new, at least the allegations of UNC’s abnormally high proportion of student athletes diagnosed as LD/ADHD. They’ve just been out of focus because most everyone focused instead on the AFAM classes that became the center of the entire ordeal.

It’s then that the reader catches a familiar name: Mary Willingham. Keteyian and his colleagues spoke to her and cited her work in noticing the abnormally high rate of athletes diagnosed with LD/ADHD. She restated her assertion that she and others were forced to find ways to get athletes diagnosed this way. So that’s that, I guess.

The name that is most prominent in this story, however, is Ted Tatos. The article introduces him with a brief biography that includes the fact that his mother is a UNC graduate and his own background as an economics expert. He is mentioned as an interested party in the UNC/NCAA case to the point of spending three years poring over the documents released, noticing any improprieties he found, and eventually co-authoring a paper that was published about the irregularities in the research.

What is conspicuously absent is the pseudonym that Ted Tatos is known by on numerous fans sites and used to be known as on Twitter: BlueDevilicious. It also doesn’t mention that he went to school as an undergraduate at Duke University. During the height of the scandal in the middle of this decade, Tatos went on rival fan sites to explain why UNC deserved to be punished. He had a back and forth with Jay Bilas on Twitter when Bilas was in the middle of stating that the issues involved were not NCAA problems. You might have issues seeing the tweets if you’ve blocked Tatos in the past or vice-versa, but here’s a snippet:

We all know that Bilas turned out to be right.

The article goes on to speak to others who acknowledge the research seems odd, and cites that others specific to the field wouldn’t go on the record because they were afraid of losing funding for their research.

The article ended on perhaps this laughable statement by Tatos:

Counters Ted Tatos: “This is not a personal issue. I don’t even know these people. I’m looking at these documents, and I’m going, ‘Whoa.’ The facts are very vocal in this case. The documents speak for themselves.”

Guskiewicz didn’t agree to be interviewed by The Athletic, and sat quiet for a few days. On Friday, however, he released a vehement response to the article. Besides standing behind his research and noting the process one has to go through for the research to be published, he notes the data Tatos used was discredited and not his study was not published in a scientific journal. In fact, the journal it is published in didn’t exist six months prior to this publication. He also goes into several issues with the story itself and notes numbers cited of athletes were a small number of the total student athletes who attended Carolina in that time period.

You can check out Tatos’s response on his Twitter feed, and he stands behind his work. He unsurprisingly cites fan bias in one tweet from Inside Carolina who was simply quoting the release from Guskiewicz. His feed continues along to again accuse Carolina of falsifying ADHD diagnosis to have more athletes get accommodations, using documents from the Carolina Commitment as supposed proof. He has a point of view and he will defend it. It also should be noted any bias he has doesn’t fully invalidate the questions he has raised, but Guskiewicz is answering them.

The authors of this article doomed himself by failing to disclose that seeking punishment for the Carolina Athletic Department has been Tatos’ personal crusade for the majority of this decade. Worse still, by going into his life story, which mentions his mother went to Carolina and then omits he went to Duke, the article falsely leads the reader to believe that if anything, Tatos would have an interest in protecting Carolina. This omission, plus the final paragraph that frames Tatos as simply an interested neutral party, severely hurts the credibility of the piece, as does the lack of named neuroscientists agreeing with Tatos’ assertion that he has identified a major issue. The best we got was some vague idea that if the assertion was correct, it would be troubling.

Ultimately, though, the work itself failed to create the kind of waves that the author was clearly hoping for because this bias results in a kind of unfocused critique. Its most barbed points come at UNC’s academics, not its athletics, so it’s certainly not piggybacking on UNC’s prior involvement with the NCAA. And Interim Chancellor Guskiewicz’s response, to which Keteyian hasn’t really responded beyond some retweets, adequately fends off those barbs. It’s a story about concussion science, in the end, which is murky to most of us at the best of times. There just isn’t anything as program-damaging as was hinted with the initial announcement, and that’s going to leave most of the public apathetic. A couple of respected publications and authors pointing out the obvious Bluedevilicious connection later, and this article has fizzled out pretty quickly.

There are probably legitimate questions to explore in this situation, some of which the article touches on. But omitting key pieces of information (and actively trying to create impressions counter to them) in a story about omissions and withholdings is not a good look. It’s been nearly a week now, so it seems less likely that The Athletic will issue a correction than it is that they’ll just let this effort fade away like a lot of stories that come and go in the world of journalism. It’ll be interesting to see if future work by the same team at The Athletic is handled any differently after this experience.