The General Motors Approach to Protecting College Basketball
In recent days Rashad McCants, a former star for the University of North Carolina basketball team, has admitted that he took paper classes in order to remain eligible to play for the Tar Heels during their championship season in 2004-2005. He has also stated that Coach Roy Williams advised him on how to retain his eligibility by taking these types of classes offered by the African-American Studies Department. There’s something highly disrespectful in steering African-American athletes into courses that fail to teach them anything about their heritage. Mr. McCants’ allegations strike at the heart of UNC’s athletic reputation. Of course, Coach Williams denies the charges or at least doesn’t remember the conversation. While it’s hard to know whether Mr. McCants or Mr. Williams is telling the truth, there is no question that Rashad McCants only retained his eligibility because he enrolled in a series of classes for which he did no work but received As.
UNC’s tactics in fending off a series of questions about their athletic department remind me of the tactics employed by General Motors in the ignition switch cases. Rather than acknowledging and addressing the problem, UNC is borrowing from the corporate playbook. For example, UNC’s athletic director, Bubba Cunningham commented like a corporate executive reacting to a disgruntled customer:
It is disappointing any time a student is dissatisfied with his or her experience. I welcome the opportunity to speak with Rashad McCants about returning to UNC to continue his academic career -- just as we have welcomed many former student-athletes interested in completing their degrees.
UNC has begun a well-orchestrated attack on Mr. McCants that mimics the tactics used to discredit Mary Willingham. Ms. Willingham was an academic counsel to the athletic department who blew the whistle on the university’s academic practices with respect to athletes. The university questioned her academic integrity, and she recently resigned. It’s an interesting approach, because this kind of attack is always preceded by UNC’s contention that they can’t understand why Ms. Willingham or Mr. McCants would make such assertions. In the case of Mr. McCants, we’re being reminded that he was a difficult or strange guy during his playing days. We’re also being told to discount his assertions because he may be writing a book. However, when Roy Williams writes a book it is treated as gospel and featured in the university bookstore.
Let’s suppose that Coach Williams is being truthful. If that’s the case, then the UNC Athletic Department has built the same kind of defective and compartmentalized organizational structure that is being exposed at General Motors. At GM, the legal department made sure that the information about defective ignition switches wasn’t reported to senior executives, and that this type of sensitive information remained suppressed. If Coach Williams didn’t know the specifics of Mr. McCants’ eligibility problems, then UNC must have constructed a similar system where tutors and advisors systemically kept the coach in the dark.
Frankly, it’s hard to believe that Coach Williams didn’t know what was going on even if he didn’t have the precise conversation described by Mr. McCants. In Hard Work: A Life On and Off the Court, Coach Williams talks about his basketball team as a close family. It’s hard to believe that the coach wasn’t involved in some way when it became apparent that his star player was on the verge of becoming academically ineligible. Moreover, it’s difficult to imagine that it didn’t strike him as odd when that same player suddenly wound up on the dean’s list.
When Coach Williams rebutted Mr. McCants’ accusations, he gathered twelve players in support of his position. Having seen what UNC does to whistleblowers, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that this group of players backed their former coach. Moreover, the players have plenty of reasons to help preserve the reputation and aura of the program that helps drive their economic success. A couple of players sitting in the room with Coach Williams appear to have taken paper courses in the African-American studies department. I doubt it’s something they want to talk about. Having a select group of former players show up to support their coach makes for a nice photo op, but it doesn’t prove much.
For argument sake, let’s assume the other athletes had meaningful educational experiences. It’s like gathering thousands of GM customers to swear that they’ve had an excellent experience driving Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions. Mr. McCants’ educational experience is like the experience of a tiny number of GM customers who suffered ignition switches failures. They deserve a remedy and so does Mr. McCants. Even if Mr. McCants were the only athlete in the basketball program to be enrolled in fake classes, that’s a problem that needs to be addressed.
It’s not hard to see why UNC and Coach Williams are going down such a troubling path. While forfeiting a championship would be unfortunate and NCAA sanctions might be unpleasant, admitting that there’s a serious problem might jeopardize the cash cow that is Carolina basketball. If UNC confesses its sins, it will become a pariah among major athletic programs, because many other programs have been protecting their cash cows using the same tactics. UNC will probably find out what GM has already learned; denial and cover up only make the problems bigger.