As a student journalist and editor-in-chief at Daily tar heel, Andy Thomason was behind the UNC-Chapel Hill “paper classes” athletics scandal that erupted in 2010. He helped run the cover of the independent student newspaper for the remainder of his college career and followed him during the Chronicle of higher education after landing a journalist job there in 2014.
“It was the dominant story for years,” Thomason said. “It was a scandal that lasted for seven years. How can a higher education scandal last for seven years? It dominated the news even as other great stories arose. “
With his new book, “Discredited: the UNC scandal and the amateur ideal of university athletics”, Thomason reflects on the scandal more thoroughly and from a new perspective.
The book chronicles the many twists and turns of a multi-year program aimed at providing student-athletes with bogus lessons and how this led to other ugly revelations about UNC athletics. He examines the damage these revelations caused to the reputation of Carolina and the NCAA, which ultimately let the school get away with no significant penalties. But it also examines the culture of UNC, the powerful interests that compete to define the university, and how those competing interests can neutralize the leaders of a school.
It’s a story that’s more relevant today than ever, Thomason said.
“This scandal never ended in a number of ways,” Thomason said. “This whirlwind of competing interests did not disappear for UNC chancellors when Holden Thorp resigned.”
This vortex continued to envelop chancellors and presidents of the UNC system in the years that followed, Thomason said.
“Carol Folt has been haunted by Silent Sam for most of her tenure,” Thomason said. “And then ended up resigning basically in protest and ordered the base of the statue removed because it was so locked up by all the competing constituencies.”
The current school chancellor has found himself torn apart by the same conflicts over everything from the school’s response to COVID-19 to the controversy over the hiring of acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.
“You find Kevin Guskiewicz, although he wasn’t forced to quit, in this pickle,” Thomason said. “He’s an academic. He would have loved Nikole Hannah-Jones to be approved for tenure through all normal processes. But as soon as the board opinion and donor opinion were added to the mix, he settled for less and it ended up biting him a bit. “
“In a way, you’ve just seen the situation escalate from a governance standpoint,” Thomason said.
But the sports scandal at the center of Thomason’s book struck at the heart of UNC’s identity.
“It was so much a part of the school’s identity, winning the right way and being a prestigious university while being one of the most recognizable sports brands in the world,” said Thomason. “It was an identity in the making for decades. And all of a sudden you have these revelations that it wasn’t like that at all, or it wasn’t as pretty as the leadership of the institution would like you to think. “
On campus, the feeling of disillusion was palpable.
“There was this feeling that we were in this elevated place,” Thomason said. “We felt different. And now we knew it wasn’t true. Everyone shared this feeling of coming back down from that great mythical peak of the 80s, 90s and 2000s and realizing that great sport has a cost. One of the ways the cost manifests itself is through the occasional scandal. “
Accepting the facts at the center of the scandal was difficult for students, administrators, alumni and the public, who Thomason said had invested heavily in the idea of ”The Carolina Way” and preserved that ideal.
The mythical idea of the amateur varsity athlete is an enticing fantasy, Thomason said. People want to believe that student-athletes can maintain high academic standards while carrying the burden of training, travel and competition. They want to believe that student athletes are not treated any differently and are not exploited by a system that is extremely profitable for their schools while offering them little or nothing beyond their athletic scholarships. They want to believe that everyone from professors and administrators to wealthy donors and athletic agents are going to treat these athletes the same as any other student when many are essentially star players in the agricultural leagues fueling the football industry. professional sport.
There are a lot of incentives not to spoil this illusion, Thomason said, and a lot of powerful people are encouraging it.
“It’s an identity, a fundamental question of identity, not just for students, but for alumni, board members and legislators,” Thomason said. “They obviously know how much it matters to their constituents. And some of them also want to go to the Chancellor’s box at Keenan Stadium. So there are many ways in which sport is becoming a top issue for administrators, presidents and chancellors. I spend much of the book talking about… how it ends up crippling college leaders.
The powerful interests of the UNC and those in its orbit also played a role in determining the extent to which the NCAA would go to sanction the school, Thomason said.
“The last little moment in the timeline where the NCAA decided to let UNC get away with no significant penalties, I think it can’t be overstated how much a dent has put in the already declining credibility of the NCAA,” Thomason said.
“You still see him resonating with them today saying that we are going to rewrite our constitution and cede some authority to the conferences,” Thomason said.
But citing a loophole and saying the NCAA couldn’t tell schools how to run their classrooms, Thomas said the NCAA likely made the prudent decision.
“It’s easy to dunk on the NCAA back then and now, always,” Thomason said. “But they knew it probably wouldn’t have stuck.”
“Friends of UNC are everywhere,” Thomason said. “They are in the NC legislature. They are at the congress. There are wealthy UNC graduates everywhere. There would have been a lot of momentum behind a court challenge if the university had decided to go down that route, and they probably would. The UNC is a very powerful institution. And that ends up determining what sanctions they incur from the various actors who are supposed to monitor them. “
Ultimately, the rising tide of a thriving UNC sports program lifts all boats.
“If you’re an academic leader, it’s a lot better for you when the going is going in this arena – from a donor perspective, from a financial well-being perspective,” Thomason said. “But if you spend time walking around the town of Chapel Hill, you know everyone benefits when UNC wins a national championship. Even at Daily Tar Heel, I remember when I was there, if we had a financially successful year, would we be able to publish a national championship newspaper that people would buy? It’s thousands and thousands of dollars. It didn’t motivate any of our decisions, but it was remarkable. “
For Thomason, the scandal was the start of a career spanning higher education. Today deputy editor-in-chief of the Chronicle of higher educationsaid Thomason, covering universities, exercises at the heart of money, power, influence, politics and lofty ideals struggling to survive daily compromises.
“The UNC scandal was in many ways my introduction to all of this,” Thomason said. “You have fans who want college presidents to do something. You got rich white people who want college presidents to do something. You have faculty members trying to be part of the conversation. You have all these people bringing something to this conversation and they all want to shape what college is. “
The sports scandal was part of a long history of such tension at UNC, Thomason said, and it is evident that it continues today.
“As any history student can tell you, the past has never really gone away,” Thomason said. “In many ways, this determines the future. “
Andy Thomason will appear to discuss his book at an event at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh on Monday, August 30 at 7 p.m. Register for the event here.