UNC and the Sports Media

The scandal in North Carolina is only the latest evidence of how rarely sports reporters -- who are beholden to athletics departments and coaches -- delve into the darker side of college athletics, writes Murray Sperber.

October 31, 2014

The authoritative report last week by the former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein on the sports scandal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that the corruption continued for at least 18 years and that the participants included at least 3100 students and multiple members of the UNC faculty, staff and administration. These numbers far transcend the usual college sports scandal, and commentators have been quick to raise a number of questions, mainly concerning how the NCAA will react to Wainstein’s findings, how UNC will gain control of the situation, etc.

However, to my knowledge and Google search, no one has asked one obvious question: how could the sports media, both local and regional, not have known about the academic transgressions and investigated them? In fact, the local paper, The News & Observer, has a long and proud history of investigating local college sports teams. 

As far back as the 1980s, when Jim Valvano was North Carolina State men’s basketball coach and before his death from cancer turned him into a holy figure for ESPN, The News & Observer revealed how Valvano had brought in recruits with abysmal SAT scores -- one, Chris Washburn, had 470 out of 1600 (at the time, students received 400 for signing their names).

But where was The News & Observer during the 18-year UNC scandal? Because so many athletes, coaches, and staffers were involved, how is that the paper’s beat writers who spent enormous amounts of time, on a daily basis, with the school’s football and basketball players, and the teams’ staffers and coaches, never heard about the phony courses and phony grades? And if they heard, as journalists, how could they not have followed up on such important leads? And what about all the other journalists in North Carolina who covered the Tarheel football and basketball teams during those years?

The answer resides in the nature of sports media coverage of local college teams and players. Having lived in Bloomington, Ind., for the exact same 30 years that Bob Knight resided -- should I say reigned? -- there as men’s basketball coach, I have some insight into how a scandal can fester and never appear in the local or even the state media.

Stories of Knight psychologically and physically abusing his players circulated frequently in Bloomington, but because the local and state basketball writers were beholden to Indiana’s athletic department for access to the team, the pressbox, the media handouts, etc., and feared the department’s wrath, they never wrote about what some of them saw with their own eyes. 

Finally, an outside journalist, Robert Abbott, a news -- not a sports -- producer with CNN, investigated the rumors and did the story that began the end of Knight’s years at Indiana.

I do not know the exact circumstances of the relations between the local and state media in North Carolina and UNC Chapel Hill, but I imagine that it is similar to what occurred in Bloomington, and what has long taken place in other college towns with prominent sports teams. 

But will all this change in the future? Will the internet further shrink the global village and expose college sports scandals with greater speed and efficiency than has occurred at UNC Chapel Hill?

Possibly but, then again, the internet has existed for the 18 years of the UNC academic fraud and did not turn up the facts.  Maybe the real solution — and the courts may impose this — is to professionalize college sports and end the pretense that all its participants are also students.  When that occurs, there will no longer be any need for sham courses, sham grades, etc. 

And important educational institutions like UNC Chapel Hill will not be tarnished by the fallout from similar academic fraud.


Murray Sperber teaches in the Cultural Study of Sports in Education Program in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California at Berkeley.


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