In the summer of 2010, when news broke that the football program at the state’s flagship university was being investigated by the NCAA, officials at the University of North Carolina took an accommodating posture. Instead of mounting a public-relations defense, they beared the onslaught without a grin, apparently having made the decision that if they didn’t join the conversation, perhaps it would be shortened.
What might have been a magical season for the Tar Heel footballers ended in mediocrity following player suspensions and during the uncertainty of an ongoing investigation. Head coach Butch Davis was fired shortly before the 2011 football season began, and longtime Athletics Director Dick Baddour resigned the next day. The interim coach and all his staff would eventually be dismissed, and the university self-imposed sanctions, including forfeiting prior wins and future scholarships.
The NCAA, having found that some players did accept benefits from agents and former players, added to the sanctions, including denying the football team an ACC championship game appearance and a bowl game after the 2012 season.
Satisfied, the NCAA went away, but an already weary story wouldn’t, growing new legs amid revelations of problems in the Department of African American Studies Department, in which a disproportonate number of athletes were enrolled. More heads rolled, including the chairman of that department, who was fired, and the chancellor of the university, who resigned.
Investigations were launched, including one by former Gov. Jim Martin. Eventually Martin concluded that the scandal was academic, not athletic, and there was no evidence that athletes were being steered into what were being called no-show classes to keep them eligible.
Instead of dying, the weary narrative was repackaged and recycled.
Then in January, UNC was hit with friendly fire. Mary Willingham, a reading specialist who works for the university, stepped forward to declare that there were athletes at UNC, including members of two national championship teams in basketball, who were basically illiterate, unable to read and write.
Willingham said she had research to back her allegations, and she had no shortage of reporters willing to listen.
But the reporters forgot Journalism 101, ignoring the obvious, that the story had jumped the shark. Instead of asking Willingham how athletes who struggle to read at an elementary school level could survive in a university renowned for its rigor, they accepted her “research,” and the story went viral, being featured nationally by multiple media outlets, both in print and broadcast.
This time the university fought back, raising serious questions about Willingham’s research. And last week, three independent experts, none with connections to UNC, all came to the same conclusion — that Willingham’s alleged research in no way supported her sensational claims.
But the stories had already been told and damage done, to the university, but moreso to athletes who did nothing wrong.
It is impossible to herd air to stuff back into the bag, but these media organizations are obligated to go with equal glee after Willingham, who has been exposed — and to set straight the record.
Failure to do so would betray their agenda just as surely as Willingham’s has been.