Tuesday, July 15, 2014


               July usually is a quiet time for college sports, a period in which coaches hide out in dark rooms indulging their game-films obsessions and players take summer classes to make up the credits they can’t get during the fall or spring semesters, when their sports are in season. Boosters are left to their own devices for entertainment, mostly watching TV reruns or speculating about the campaigns ahead.
            This year, though, has been lively. The NCAA is defending itself in court over its use of player images in video games and, for a change, is losing. The major conferences are rumbling about making their own rules and threatening to split with the cartel if they don’t get their way.  Rarely a day goes by that a college athlete doesn’t embarrass his school by running afoul of the law, a subject I wrote about a couple of blogs ago. That’s one price the institutions pay for the business they’re in.
            The busiest campus is that of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and it wishes it wasn’t. A scandal has been unfolding there that goes back more than 15 years and is appalling even for the cesspool that is college sports. It seems that an entire academic department of the university-- African and Afro-American Studies, or AFAM-- existed mainly to keep jocks eligible for their sports by handing them A’s or B’s for courses that required no class attendance or much other effort. There’s evidence that tutors wrote papers for athletes and, if that failed, grades were changed, sometimes by forging instructors’ signatures. The irregularities date from at least 1997. Since a college generation spans four years, that means it affected about four generations of Tar Heel athletes. That included the school’s 2005 and 2009 national-champion men’s basketball teams.

Some of those allegations were investigated previously by the NCAA, lumped together with those of the more-common sports grist of “impermissible benefits” (i.e., payoffs) to athletes. In 2011 the organization hit the school with penalties to its football program that cost head coach Butch Davis his job, but it determined that the infractions were limited to football and looked no further.  Things might have ended there if two state newspapers—the Raleigh News & Observer and Charlotte Observer—hadn’t kept digging, something that no doubt riled more than a few of their readers and advertisers.

 The papers’ stories uncovered a far-wider mess and resulted in the indictment for fraud of Julius Nyang’oro, the AFAM department chairman from 1992 to 2012, for pocketing $12,000 (on top of his regular yearly salary of $200,000) for teaching a summer course that never met. They also brought forward Mary Willingham, an assistant director of the university’s tutoring arm, who said that pre-written term papers were routinely handed to jocks in several academic disciplines and that for years the university had been keeping eligible athletes who read at grade-school levels.

 Most tellingly, the scandal acquired a face when Rashad McCants, a star of the 2005 hoops-title team, went public in June with allegations that his education at Chapel Hill was a sham, consisting largely of unearned grades achieved in the no-show classes to which he was directed by his coaches and academic advisers. UNC and other schools guard athletes’ grades transcripts like state secrets, but McCants produced a copy of his showing that he’d received  10 A’s, six B’s, one C and one D in his AFAM classes, and six C’s, one D and three F’s in courses outside the department.

“When you go to college you don’t go to class, you don’t do nothing, you just show up and play,” he said on ESPN’s Outside the Lines program. “You’re not there to get an education, though they tell you that. You’re there to make revenue for the college…to put fans in the seats.”

Now the NCAA has reopened its investigation and the university is conducting an inquiry of its own, headed by an ex-U.S. Justice Department official. NCAA and institutional self-investigations often end in whitewashes, but UNC might not have that option. Nyang’oro, who’d refused to talk since his indictment last year, lately has said he’d cooperate with investigators after the criminal charges against him were dropped.  That’s a curious arrangement, indicating that the university’s reach extends into local law enforcement, but he’d likely have many beans to spill should he choose to.

Almost as bad as the charges against UNC has been its reaction to them. Its line has been to blame all irregularities on Nyang’oro and his secretary, and to chide the Carolina newspapers for their reports on the situation. Whistleblower Willingham was stripped of her administrative duties and assigned to shuffle papers in a basement office. She resigned and is suing the school.

Roy Williams, UNC’s much-decorated basketball head coach, channeled Inspector Renault of the movie “Casablanca” by saying at a press conference that he’d reacted to ex-player McCants’ charges with “shock and disbelief.”  “I have somewhat control over the basketball program. I don’t have control of the academic side,” he said in a classic non-denial denial. This is a man who is paid a reported $2.6 million a year to run a 15-player program, and probably knows what his players eat for breakfast every morning. It later came out that six of the 15 young men on Williams’ ’05 squad were AFAM majors, as were many other Tar Heel jocks before and after.

 The affair is especially telling because UNC is one of those chesty schools that likes to brag that it “does things right,” combining classroom and playing-field excellence without breaking the rules of either. The U of Michigan said that before it was learned that Ed Martin, a Detroit numbers racketeer, was the godfather of its Fab Five-era basketball teams.  Notre Dame, too, before it deep-sixed a rape complaint against a footballer by a woman student who committed suicide after the incident, and sent a 20-year-old student manager to his death videotaping football practice from a tower during a windstorm.

As a Southern institution, UNC might have been more sensitive than most to its obligations to the black athletes it has been recruiting only with relative recency. Yes, the players involved were complicit in their own exploitation, but their youth was an excuse their adult advisers lacked.

This is a matter that goes beyond sports, casting doubt on the integrity of a university as a whole. The NCAA shouldn’t be investigating it, the national accrediting bodies should.


Tuesday, July 1, 2014


                When people ask me to name the best event I ever covered as a sportswriter, I answer without hesitation. It was the 1998 soccer World Cup in France. No 2?  Also easy-- the 1994 World Cup in the United States.
              The 1998 fest gets the nod in large part because it enabled me (and wife Susie) to spend five weeks in France on the Wall Street Journal’s dime, but both World Cups stood out from a sporting standpoint. The high athletic level of the games and the color, enthusiasm and good nature of the crowds made both occasions memorable.  To attend a World Cup is to love it.

                Thanks to ESPN’s brilliant, wall-to-wall coverage,   Americans have been getting a virtual World Cup experience this time around that’s almost as good as the real thing, and the results have been startling. We are more into the event than when we were the hosts, with sports bars packed to capacity  when the U.S. team plays and large crowds gathering in open-air urban venues to watch the action communally on big screens, just like in Europe and Latin America. Almost 25 million people watched the U.S.-Portugal match on TV, more than watched any game of the NBA or NHL finals. Little kids say they want to be soccer players when they grow up.

 With this exposure has come a marked increase in soccer literacy. A few years ago about all the typical Yank could tell you about the game was that the English star David Beckham was a cute guy with a cuter wife. Today many of us know what a “striker” is, and the terms “offside,” “cross,” “penalty kick” and “stoppage time” also have become familiar. I heard one radio sports-blab guy give a match score as “one- nil” without a hint of sarcasm. That’s progress.

True to form, however, our burst of soccermania has led some to conclude that the sport is about to rival our traditional Big Three of baseball, football and basketball for our year-around attentions. Not so fast, folks. Soccer is an acquired taste that’s acquired gradually, and will need more than a once-every-four-years goose to truly catch on hereabouts.  Americans who follow the sport (I am one of them) will need to exercise the quite-unAmerican trait of patience before we see it achieve capital-letter popularity.

The patience theme is apparent in the World Cup history of our men’s national team. The U.S. participated in three of the event’s first four renewals (in 1930, ’34 and ’50), before it was a big deal, but the game then receded into irrelevance on these shores and World Cup qualification wasn’t again achieved  until  1990. That team proved how far the U.S. had to go to compete against nations with greater soccer history and dedication; consisting mostly of collegians, it was sent home after three thrashings, outscored two goals to eight.

Things improved thereafter, with qualification coming in 1994 and ’98 and 2002, ’06 and ’10. Instead of with college kids those teams filled their ranks with pros, some of them with European experience. But they weren’t the best players on the best teams there, and although the 2002 edition surprised with a quarterfinals berth it never threatened seriously to bring home the funny-looking champion’s trophy. 

While it lacks the star it never has had, this year’s U.S. team is the deepest and hardest working yet, and probably the best coached. A long shot to advance in a group with Germany, ranked No. 2 worldwide, No. 4 Portugal and good-though-unranked Ghana (the U.S. came in at No. 13), the Yanks beat Ghana and came within a heart-stopping 30 seconds of victory over Portugal and immediate advancement.  They lost to Germany last Thursday, and while the score was 1-0 German domination of the game signaled that the road to the top still was long. Nonetheless, the U.S. made it to the round of 16, no small accomplishment and enough to fuel future optimism.

The long-view requirement is even stronger when it comes to building the sort of domestic professional league necessary for any lasting popularity gains. One pro circuit—the North American Soccer League—was launched in 1968 and made a splash in the 1970s with the high-priced signings of the superannuated international stars Pele and Franz Beckenbauer. It was gone by 1984, the victim of too-large payrolls and too-small attendance.

 The next try was Major League Soccer, started in 1996 with more-modest aims and budgets. MLS struggled until most of its teams abandoned large football stadiums as homes and built or found venues with capacities in the 20,000-to-25,000-seat range that created a snugger, more-intense fan experience for the size of crowds it was attracting.  It also has profited by organizing its hard-core backers into the kind of supporter groups that help European club teams thrive. Team names like Houston Dynamo and Real Salt Lake, however comical, are a further try to recreate a European club atmosphere.

 MLS has grown to 19 teams from 10 at its inception, and is said to be making money. Still, it’s a second-tier league with an out-of-synch summer schedule whose quality of play is well below that of the European “majors” in England, Spain, Germany and Italy, and is likely to remain so in the foreseeable future. American players who want to test themselves against the best will have to cross the ocean to do so, as they do now.

There’s no denying, though, that soccer culture is spreading in the U.S., and making a mark. FOX TV and the new NBC Sports channels have been broadcasting a regular stream of top-level European club games into this country, with good ratings.  We’re a big, rich market and it would be no surprise if the people who run, say, the English Premier League were mulling expanding into an American city or two, the way our NBA is said to be eyeing Europe.

 Picture it if you will: the New York Whachamacallits versus Man U in an EPL game.

 It’ll happen. Just be patient.