UNC's McCants: 'Just show up, play'
Rashad McCants, the second-leading scorer on the North Carolina basketball team that won the 2004-05 national title, told ESPN's "Outside the Lines" that tutors wrote his term papers, he rarely went to class for about half his time at UNC, and he remained able to play largely because he took bogus classes designed to keep athletes academically eligible.
McCants told "Outside the Lines" that he could have been academically ineligible to play during the championship season had he not been provided the assistance. Further, he said head basketball coach Roy Williams knew about the "paper class" system at UNC. The so-called paper classes didn't require students to go to class; rather, students were required to submit only one term paper to receive a grade.
McCants also told "Outside the Lines" that he even made the dean's list in the spring of 2005 despite not attending any of his four classes for which he received straight-A grades. He said advisers and tutors who worked with the basketball program steered him to take the paper classes within the African-American Studies program.
McCants' allegations mirror and amplify many of those first made public in 2011, when the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer began to report about widespread academic fraud at UNC. The scandal has centered on the African-American Studies classes that many athletes took in order to remain eligible. The newspaper reported in December 2012 that basketball players on the national championship team accounted for 15 enrollments in the classes. A UNC internal investigation found that 54 classes in the department of African and Afro-American Studies were either "aberrant" or "irregularly" taught from summer 2007 to summer 2011. That investigation only went back to 2007, according to the school's review, because the two senior associate deans who conducted the probe were told by Karen Gil, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, to focus on that time frame.
The NCAA sanctioned the football program for improper benefits and academic misconduct involving a tutor, but the athletic department's sports programs largely emerged from the academic scandal penalty-free.
In a statement to "Outside the Lines" on Thursday, UNC athletics director Bubba Cunningham said: "It is disappointing any time a student is dissatisfied with his or her experience. I welcome the opportunity to speak with Rashad McCants about returning to UNC to continue his academic career -- just as we have welcomed many former student-athletes interested in completing their degrees.
"The university hired former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein in January to conduct an independent investigation into past academic and athletic irregularities. While these are the first allegations we have heard from Mr. McCants, I encourage him to speak with Mr. Wainstein. ...
"I have gotten to know some of Mr. McCants' teammates, and I know that claims about their academic experience have affected them deeply. They are adamant that they had a different experience at UNC-Chapel Hill than has been portrayed by Mr. McCants and others."
Williams also issued a statement, saying: "With respect to the comments made today, I strongly disagree with what Rashad [McCants] has said. In no way did I know about or do anything close to what he says and I think the players whom I have coached over the years will agree with me. I have spent 63 years on this earth trying to do things the right way and the picture he portrays is not fair to the university or me."
A copy of McCants' university transcript, labeled "unofficial" and obtained by "Outside the Lines," shows that in his non-African-American Studies classes, McCants received six C's, one D and three F's. In his African-American Studies classes, 10 of his grades were A's, six B's, one a C and one a D. The UNC registrar's office declined to send McCants an official, signed transcript because of a May 2005 hold on its release. According to the UNC athletic department, McCants had university property that had never been returned.
A second copy of his transcript obtained from a different source by "Outside the Lines" is identical to the first and is also not signed by the registrar but does not contain the label "unofficial."
McCants, who said it was common for basketball players to major in African-American Studies, said he assumed tutors writing papers for athletes was to be expected and he didn't question it while he attended UNC.
"I thought it was a part of the college experience, just like watching it on a movie from 'He Got Game' or 'Blue Chips,'" McCants said. "... When you get to college, you don't go to class, you don't do nothing, you just show up and play. That's exactly how it was, you know, and I think that was the tradition of college basketball, or college, period, any sport. You're not there to get an education, though they tell you that.
"You're there to make revenue for the college. You're there to put fans in the seats. You're there to bring prestige to the university by winning games."
McCants said his first year he did go to class and took several legitimate, core-curriculum courses. But overall, his transcript shows he ended up with more than 50 percent of his courses being African-American Studies classes.
McCants said he was headed toward ineligibility during the championship season because he had failed algebra and psychology, which accounted for half of his credits, in the fall of 2004. He had two A's in African-American Studies classes in addition to the F's. He said coach Roy Williams informed him of his academic troubles during a meeting ahead of the spring semester.
"There was a slight panic on my part ... [he] said, you know, we're going to be able to figure out how to make it happen, but you need to buckle down on your academics."
He said Williams told him "we're going to be able to change a class from, you know, your summer session class and swap it out with the class that you failed, just so the GPA could reflect that you are in good standing."
McCants ended up in four African-American Studies classes in the following semester, earning straight A's. He said he didn't know what Williams was getting at with the summer school class replacement reference, and he never talked with Williams about it again. The transcripts show he had received one A in an African-American Studies class in the summer of 2004.
"I remained eligible to finish out and win the championship, his first championship, and everything was peaches and cream," McCants said.
He said he is sure Williams and the athletic department as a whole knew "100 percent" about the paper class system.
"I mean, you have to know about the education of your players and ... who's eligible, who's not and ... who goes to this class and missing that class. We had to run sprints for missing classes if we got caught, so you know, they were very aware of what was going on."
Former Tar Heels player Sean May, who said he received his degree in 2009, disagreed that the McCants' experience was the norm for players. He said he met with Wainstein, the investigator, last month.
"I hate people calling it paper classes," May said. "It makes it seem like we didn't do anything. I know work was done. I had to write 25-page papers for independent study."
May said he'd met with a number of teammates in anticipation of the story running, and talked about a statement he said was reflective of the views of teammates on the 2005 championship team other than McCants.
"By no means does what Rashad said reflect our views and experiences about North Carolina," May said. "We knew that something was coming out. But in a million years, we didn't think this was it. It's unfortunate."
The statement released to ESPN said that the players attended class and did their own academic work. It also said: "We also want to make it clear that Coach Williams and his staff operated with the highest level of ethics and integrity within their respective roles."
"Outside the Lines" tried repeatedly to reach May for an interview over the past several weeks. Through a spokesperson at his charitable foundation, he declined to comment. Several players, who May on Friday says he met with, also were contacted by "Outside the Lines," and they either declined to comment or did not respond to interview requests.
In a statement released late Friday, Wainstein said: " We have interviewed or attempted to interview a number of current and former UNC student athletes and we have received valuable insights and information from those who have agreed to speak with us. We would welcome the opportunity to speak to Mr. McCants or anybody else who can shed light on the issues we are investigating."
McCants left UNC after his third year and played four seasons in the NBA, before moving to play overseas. In the 90-minute "Outside the Lines" interview last month, McCants said he is planning to write a book about his basketball and collegiate experience.
McCants played as a freshman for coach Matt Doherty, who resigned under pressure and was succeeded by Williams in April 2003. McCants led the ACC in scoring his sophomore year and was the second-leading scorer his junior year as the Tar Heels won the national title. Still, he was often described as mercurial and enigmatic. In one local TV interview that ended up drawing national media coverage, McCants angered the basketball program's fans by equating UNC with being in jail: "You're not allowed to do certain things, you're not allowed to say certain things." He later said his statements were misinterpreted.
He acknowledged the difficult times at UNC when he spoke with "Outside the Lines," but spoke fondly about his time there overall. He discussed his suspect college education, describing himself as self-educated, and talked generally about how student athletes are treated at major sports programs. He spoke from memory without referring to his transcript. While he remembered most details correctly in terms of his transcript, he got other details incorrect, such as saying he had made the Dean's List twice instead of once.
"Outside the Lines" contacted or attempted to contact other players, and tutors and advisers from the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes, but all either didn't respond or declined to comment.
Mary Willingham, a former UNC learning specialist who is often described as a whistleblower about the UNC academic fraud scandal, said she believes McCants' allegations.
"What he is saying absolutely lines up with what I have found: tutors writing papers for players, and advisers and tutors steering players to AFAM," she said. "I think the coaches knew about the paper class system. Of course they did.
"The system will only change when our athletes have a voice and begin to step forward, and that's what Rashad is doing. It was the adults who failed the athletes."
Doherty said Friday that "I did not see any problems while I was at UNC as a player or a coach. I feel sorry for Rashad. He has had a lot of ups and downs during his career. If there are any issues, I trust that Bubba Cunningham and the university will get to the bottom of it."
Willingham said she and other colleagues openly discussed their concerns about the African-American Studies paper class system in 2006, the same year The New York Times published an investigation about an independent studies scandal at Auburn. By 2007, Willingham said basketball players had started moving away from paper classes, and by 2009, when the basketball program hired a new academic adviser, the UNC paper-class system had all-but ended.
McCants said he's coming forward now because he is concerned about the future.
"It's about my kids, about your kids. It's about their kids. It's about knowing the education that I received and knowing that something needs to change," he said. "This has nothing to do with the Carolina fans or the Carolina program. It has everything to do with the system, and Carolina just so happened to be a part of the system and they participated in the system, so in retrospect, you have to look at it and say, 'Hey, you know what you did wrong.'
"Stand up. It's time for everybody to really just be accountable."
He said he is prepared for a backlash from UNC fans.
"If there are Carolina fans that don't like what's I'm saying and don't like what's happening right now, they need to look in the mirror, see that it's a bigger picture," he said. "... I'm putting my life on the line for the younger generation right now, and I know that nobody else wants to step up and speak out because everybody's afraid, fear, submission, especially the black athletes ...
"College was a great experience, but looking back at it, now it's almost a tragedy because I spent a lot of my time in a class I didn't do anything in."
Producer Dave Lubbers of ESPN's Enterprise and Investigative Unit, and ESPN senior writers Andy Katz and Jeff Goodman contributed to this report.
ESPN TOP HEADLINES
- Duke vs. SJU: Coach K seeks 1,000th win
- Belichick says Patriots 'followed every rule'
- NFL warns Seahawks about Lynch gesture
- Waiters: Not scapegoat for Cavs' early issues