On the day after the Super Bowl, I got a call from Michael McAdoo, a 22-year-old defensive lineman for the winning Baltimore Ravens. I had been expecting his call for several weeks, ever since the North Carolina Court of Appeals refused to revive his lawsuit against the NCAA and the University of North Carolina, where he had played for two years before being declared permanently ineligible. Though he didn’t dress for the big game — he’s been injured most of his short professional career — McAdoo had attended the team’s practices and meetings; he told me he’d been too busy to call earlier.
Athletes almost never win lawsuits against the NCAA. There is, after all, no constitutional right to play college sports, and because the NCAA is a “voluntary” organization made up of member institutions, courts are loath to interfere, even when the rules seem unfair.
In 2008, in his first semester at North Carolina, McAdoo had asked a former tutor to help him write citations for a paper, something he was unsure about. With the due date fast approaching, the woman — whom he wasn’t supposed to talk to because she was no longer an official tutor — essentially wrote the citations herself. Several years later, in the middle of a burgeoning “scandal” involving more than a dozen Carolina football players, the email exchange between McAdoo and the former tutor was unearthed, and his actions were reported to the NCAA and the school’s honor court.
The honor court ruled that McAdoo should be suspended for a semester. Never one to show mercy, the NCAA went further, barring him from ever playing college football again. McAdoo sued to get reinstated, but the case was tossed. Because his college career ended prematurely, he signed with the Ravens for the professional minimum (which, at $450,000 a year, is admittedly none too shabby).
When stories like McAdoo’s burst into public view, the athlete is almost always cast as the villain, a cheater gaming the academy. But, in this case, McAdoo was the true victim. The real scandal is what goes on under the rubric of “academic counseling.”
It is not news, of course, that universities accept athletes who read at the fifth-grade level or worse; quite often academic counseling is remedial. But McAdoo wasn’t in that category. He had been an OK student in high school, and his mother, a schoolteacher, was adamant that he get a college education. He told his recruiters he wanted to major in criminal justice.
Once he got on campus, however, he was quickly informed by his academic counselors that North Carolina didn’t have a criminal justice major. According to McAdoo, his counselor picked his major, African-American studies, because it wouldn’t interfere with football practice.
Among the first classes he was “assigned” (as he phrases it) was a Swahili course, an “independent studies” class taught by the department chairman, Julius Nyang’oro. “There wasn’t any class,” McAdoo recalled. “You sign up. You write the paper. You get credit. I had never seen anything like it.” He never once met his professor. Despite the strange circumstances, he researched and wrote the paper. It was that paper that got him in the trouble with the NCAA.
“All the academic counselors knew about the paper classes” — as they were called — “ and they all steered athletes to them,” says Mary Willingham, a former academic counselor at the university.
But when the NCAA went after McAdoo, there was no mention of the phony classes. The school certainly never mentioned them, and as for the NCAA, all it cared about was whether McAdoo had committed academic fraud for getting citation help in a class that never met. McAdoo’s contention — that he had no reason to believe he had done anything wrong, because he had simply done what he’d been told to do — fell on deaf ears. His college career was sacrificed so that the NCAA could maintain its long-standing pretense that college athletes are supposed to be students first.
The paper classes were eventually exposed by The News & Observer, after which the university asked former Gov. James Martin of North Carolina to conduct an investigation. Martin, who issued his report a few months ago, found that 216 courses were problematic, and that as many as 560 grades had been changed. He laid all the problems at the feet of Nyang’oro (who had earlier been allowed to retire), and one department colleague. Martin insisted that the scandal wasn’t strictly an athletic one, because non-athletes also took some of the paper classes. Well, maybe.
As for Michael McAdoo, the public humiliation still stings. “I had days when I was so depressed, I could barely get out of bed,” he told me. He feels that he put his trust in an institution that ultimately betrayed him.
“I would still like to get a college degree someday,” he said. “But not at the University of North Carolina. They just wasted my time.”
Joe Nocera is a columnist for The New York Times.