UNC held a panel discussion on reforming college athletics that ultimately turned into a public forum for people to vent frustrations over the NCAA investigation into the Tar Heel football program. I am linking two pieces on the event. Once from the N&O’s Luke DeCock which covered the more controversial elements and the Daily Tar Heel which is more of a general overview.
The were two “bombshells”, if you will, during the discussion. The first came from UNC visiting professor and NCAA critic Taylor Branch who last year wrote this scathing piece about the NCAA. Branch asserted that student-athletes who wanted to speak with him about the inequities of the NCAA systems were barred from doing so(via the N&O)0
“I’ve been told within the last 48 hours here that athletes who want to come talk to me about the equities of college sports here in Chapel Hill cannot come see me even privately, because their coaches won’t let them,” said Branch, a visiting professor at North Carolina who has recently become an outspoken critic of the NCAA.
“This is not a place of free enquiry, which is what it should be, if you have that kind of control vested in people who are not even on the faculty of this university.
My only question about what Branch is asserting here is why would UNC coaches care? I suppose fear of ruffling feathers and upsetting the NCAA while the penalty is still being deliberated upon is a possibility. The problem is for “coaches”(plural) to instruct athletes not to seek Branch out would mean it came from higher up right? It seems a little off kilter to me and for that reason I am going basically leave it alone.
As to Branch’s larger point about student-athlete rights, he has a point. One of the more disturbing aspects of the whole NCAA scandal was how the players in question were treated. During the course of the questioning UNC players had no rights, no representation and no means of fully grasping the legal complexities of the NCAA rules and process. There is a whole river of bad feelings running as an undercurrent to this mess over the perception that UNC threw multiple players under the bus in the name of expediency and cooperation with the NCAA. Fear of the NCAA and the need to protect the school’s image created an atmosphere where the players were sacrificed far too easily for the bigger picture. Devon Ramsay is a perfect example of what happens when a player has legal counsel to handle his case. One has to wonder what difference counsel may have made if other players had been afford it. Yes, some of the players involved committed egregious violations but UNC or any school should do a better job of ensuring the players are afforded some protection. That was the crux of former UNC assistant John Shoop’s question to the panel when he said(via DTH):
“Where I sit, the players, as they face the NCAA, had no advocates. In fact, they were instructed not to get lawyers. I was instructed as a coach that I am not allowed to speak out. What could this University have done differently integrity-wise in the procedures?”
The people who run the University obviously must weigh multiple issues and priorities in dealing with a crisis of this nature. The words “rock” and “hard place” come to mind in observing how UNC or any school might handle the various interests involved in such an investigation. On some level it will not be a bloodless process. Someone always gets wronged no matter how much care is taken to avoid such casualties. However the feeling “on the ground” is UNC did not do as much as it could have to protect the student-athletes in its care thus the outcry. After all if Ramsay can go from being permanently banned to playing again who else may have been helped by having someone concerned only for the player’s interest and not the school.
The other interesting item to drop during the panel discussion was from professor Jane Thralkill who said several university donors were withholding additional contributions to the school until Holden Thorp was fired. This group is upset Thorp “messed with football” Obviously these people can do with their money as they please and their act of protest is exactly the kind that often gets things done. That being said, if I was going to make a list of people who “messed with [UNC] football” there would be several names on it before I got to Holden Thorp. What seems to be continually lost on these people is Thorp only “messed with football” because Butch Davis, John Blake, Jennifer Wiley and countless others not to mention a few players broke the rules. The only thing Thorp is guilty of is trying to clean up the mess made by others. Did he handle it with alarming doses of ineptitude coupled with terrible timing? Sure but Thorp’s involvement in UNC football was born out of other people screwing up in the first place. If there are no NCAA violations then Thorp is happily off doing whatever it is that he does. So if people want to be upset with Thorp for trying to do the right thing, that’s their right, but spare me the notion Thorp “messed with football.” UNC football was “messed with” long before Thorp decided to fire Butch Davis.
If this panel showed anything it was there are still plenty of aggrieved parties. The Tar Heel community still suffers from divisions over these issues wrought by the NCAA investigation. If you are keeping score at home it has been 123 days since UNC went before the NCAA Committee on Infractions. That is nearly 40 days since the end of the state guideline of 8-12 weeks for the COI to issue the final report. No one knows what it taking so long but the longer it takes, some of the bad feelings will fester. Then again, if the delay allows those involved to really discuss what meaningful reform looks like then that would be a benefit.