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Facts Optional in UNC Investigation?

Colin, from the Mac Attack
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Growing up, my Sports Illustrated subscription served as a weekly look into the magnificent world of athletics. I didn’t fully appreciate the quality of the magazine at that young age, but as the years passed, and I refused to part with any of the older copies, I began to appreciate the workmanship necessary to paint these compelling stories with words. Now, however, instead of reading the works of master artisans, with the delicate skills of sports Michaelangelos, the publication feels more like the work of a five-year-old finger painting.

With the turmoil surrounding the Tar Heel football program, there have been countless incidents of misinformation or ill-informed opinions flowing from message boards and various media sources, but my cumulative dismay paled in comparison to the pain I felt when reading two recent SI pieces on the NCAA’s Notice of Allegations (NOA) to UNC. When Stewart Mandel wrote a reaction piece to the NOA, I dismissed some errors as product of the quick turnaround, but when Andy Staples weighed in this week and declared the ‘NCAA should hammer the Heels’ but supported his argument with inaccuracies and sensationalized generalizations something had to be said.

In only four paragraphs, Staples paints a grim picture for the Heels, but uses the following errors to do so:

“the litany of allegations the NCAA hurled at North Carolina last week…”

Of the nine allegations, four were reported by the University based on an internal investigation, including the issues with former tutor Jennifer Wiley, which Staples asserts is one of the two most damning. Semantics perhaps, but it was a self-reported violation, not one ‘hurled’ by the NCAA.

“the NCAA has accused Jennifer Wiley, a former tutor, of providing about $3,500 in impermissible benefits—including paying parking tickets for players and providing them free tutoring.”

The NOA clearly states she paid, “$1,789 in parking violation expenses on August 20, 2010, for then student-athlete [redacted].” Singular. One player. Not multiple as Staples’ states. It was the same player whom she provided a plane ticket, which means the only “impermissible benefit” the majority of the players received was part of the 142 hours of improper tutoring (because she was not employed by the school) valued at $1,562 ($11/hour).

“Consider that the NCAA banned the Trojans from postseason play for two years and stripped the program of 30 scholarships because USC coaches and administrators, it says, should have known that Reggie Bush and his family had received improper benefits.”

This can only be described as a blatant attempt to gloss over facts. The NCAA determined Pete Carroll had funneled football players to a sports marketing agency as interns, who then provided a player improper benefits and the institution failed to monitor the situation. Carroll also hired a film consultant, violating the maximum number of coaches, and failed to inform the compliance department. There was also a booster’s restaurant that prospects visited. And agents on the sideline and in the locker room. And an assistant coach that failed to report infractions. And the problems spread among three sports. All this amounts to more than just innocent coaches and administrators lacking awareness.

Even the stated facts about John Blake, whom no one is defending, are not without error:

“The NCAA’s insinuation is that Blake not only recruited players to wear Tar Heel blue, but that he also recruited Tar Heels to sign with [Gary] Wichard’s agency.”

Only one UNC player with a possible connection was/or had been represented by Wichard and the NOA in no way suggests he signed due to John Blake. There was one current athlete who apparently was being recruited, but again, singular. The NOA states he was employed to “influence football student-athletes” not specifically UNC players, which is significant because the other two athletes mentioned in the NOA were Brian Bozworth [sic] and Ndamukong Suh, neither of whom was a Tar Heel. Is it fair to suggest that it would be extremely difficult for Butch Davis to monitor such contact with players that were not his?

“Shouldn’t Davis and his bosses also have known that their own man steered players to an agent who provided them with extra benefits?”

‘Steered players’ again is plural when the NOA only connects one of Butch’s players to Blake and Wichard. The improper benefits received by all UNC players are outlined in the NOA and Wichard/Blake are linked to only that same player for the amount of $5082.37 and an additional $2000 through Wichard’s one former Tar Heel client. By stating ‘players’ and ‘them’ Staples improperly paints a picture that is not congruent with the facts.

There’s also an error of omission, when the author fails to acknowledge that the $31,000 Blake received from Gary Wichard were not reported to the University, which NCAA legislation requires. There’s no mention of these payments being improper, which to a reader aware of the afore-mentioned NCAA legislation would seem to suggest the University was aware of the payments. Blake’s failure to disclose this income also suggests he was attempting to keep this activity from Davis, the school, and any discerning eye, but that’s a discussion for another day.

When the NCAA rules on this case, the school will likely receive a failure to monitor penalty, which is a step down from Lack of Institutional Control and without some of the harder-hitting sanctions. An article like this hurts the dialogue, rather than helping it, which surely wasn’t the intent of the author, but in cases such as this, the devil is in the details – or the pronouns. Fans of other schools who read the piece may feel UNC got preferential treatment (when the NCAA rules), but numerous factors will have been in play. UNC’s cooperation with the investigation, there were more individual transgressions and fewer systemic issues, and players were suspended from play ahead of the investigation, where other schools have tried to evade the issue until the end of a potentially rewarding season. These factors were all omitted, but would have provided the reader a better context than an attention-grabbing headline.

SI had been my weekly sports bible. Whatever it contained was gospel. Now, it’s clear the publication is no longer focused on being the best in sports journalism and more about clicks and pageviews or perhaps worse, has become lazy and careless with its writing and editing. Whether or not the Tar Heels should be hammered or not is not my call, but I do think it should be done on the merits of the facts and not inaccurate reporting. Unfortunately, the facts also suggest SI has relinquished their title as the sports publication of record. I also can’t help but wonder about all those damning Ohio State allegations I just read about in SI.

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