Monday, July 14, 2014

My Experience as a UNC Student-Athlete: A (Not So) Different Perspective

In this essay, guest blogger and former UNC golfer Bob Cherry recalls his academic experience as a student-athlete who took one of the infamous "paper classes" and earned a real education nonetheless. In fact, Bob Cherry is now Dr. Cherry, a practicing dentist in Wilmington, NC. Although his perspective on the academic experience of UNC student-athletes is different from what the media has presented, he believes it is not so different from that of the vast majority of UNC student-athletes. 

My name is Bob Cherry, and I am a Tar Heel.

Though I was reluctant to sound cliché and start my essay that way, I feel that statement—“I am a Tar Heel”—can still be a rally cry, of sorts, for people who love UNC like I do. Those of us who have been to the Dean Dome or Kenan Stadium over the past few years have seen the videos of famous UNC athletes making that simple statement, affirming their Tar Heel identity, and so I felt compelled to follow their lead. This essay is my way of affirming my identity as a Tar Heel and offering a different and, in my opinion, more complete side of the UNC athlete’s story than the one being rehashed in the media.

I spent 13 years of my life in Chapel Hill and was in some type of academic environment for most of it. I have toyed with the idea of writing a response to the negative UNC stories over the past year or so, but I was never sufficiently motivated to do so until recently, when I read an article about Coach Roy Williams and Rashad McCants. Sadly, my alma mater has been disparaged relentlessly over the past few years in the state of North Carolina due mainly to academic issues allegedly surrounding the athletic department. The talk is not the positive publicity we Tar Heels had grown accustomed to, but that is not the point. The point is that it has been borderline defamation by a select few in the local and national media.

I played on the golf team at UNC from 1998 – 2003 (I redshirted one year), and by no means would I compare playing golf at UNC to playing basketball or football, but I believe all UNC athletes share a common experience nonetheless. Playing any sport at UNC was difficult due to the time commitment required. UNC is a very difficult school to get into, and then once you are there, it is very challenging academically, even for a high school valedictorian. As for reports of athletes reading on fourth grade levels, do I agree? Not completely, but I am sure there were and are some student-athletes who struggled with the curriculum. Do I think many athletes would not be at UNC if not for their sport? Absolutely. Do I think UNC gave out grades to athletes? Absolutely not. I personally know far too many athletes who worked hard to stay in school and earn a degree.

I was a team captain for three years, so I had to work closely with the coaches, the academic staff, and my teammates to make sure matters (including academic, athletic, and social) were handled appropriately. As I mentioned before, UNC is a hard school to get into and a really hard school to do well in once you are there. Many students, athletes and non-athletes alike, struggle. Thankfully, UNC has an academic support system in place to help student-athletes. Much of what is being criticized in the media is that "help." I went to the academic support center many times during my athletic career. There were always players from other teams present. We had to sign up for a time (usually 30-60 minute slots) to get tutoring. This could range from help on math assignments, to help on outlines and papers, to assistance with the final editing of a paper. We were usually in rooms where we could hear other tutors helping athletes. I never once heard or saw a tutor do anyone’s work. In fact, the practice was that tutors would help with wording or structure, but the athlete had to come up with the idea and then type or write the words in themselves. I will adamantly defend that the tutoring we received was regulated, structured, and at no time did I see work done for athletes. Additionally, many teams required study hall hours for the players and almost always the freshman. There were certain GPA requirements one had to meet to be excused from going to study hall hours. Some teams and coaches required a certain number of hours no matter what the GPA was.

I would be lying and showing my bias if I told you that there was nothing wrong at UNC or any other institution in the country in regard to academics and athletes. The athletic program would not have received any penalties from the NCAA if there were no problems, but I do feel like UNC is being singled out because it is UNC and because the media will not let the story go away and wants to see UNC fail. As for my undergraduate work, I admit I took a "paper class," as they are called, and a few online classes as well. They were referred to as independent studies when I was in college. I met with Deborah Crowder and explained to her that I needed to take a class that filled an AFAM prerequisite, but due to my golf travel and playing schedule, there were few classes that I could take. She was able to enroll me in a class in which I had about three to four topics to choose from to write a 25-page paper. Did everyone write a 25-page paper? I doubt it, but I do know that in these "paper classes" work was required for a grade. How did I learn of said class? I learned about it from my roommates and other friends, not from another athlete. More importantly, Ms. Crowder did not let me take the class just because I was an athlete. In fact, I would venture to guess that over 30 of my fraternity brothers took a class similar to this, and I know a few of them who did not write a paper and received an F or an incomplete in the class.

The curriculum at UNC is one that is very diverse and there are a lot of unusual requirements that one has to take to graduate. Athletes are no different than any other student when it comes to meeting all these requirements,with the exception of scheduling, as there are many factors student-athletes have to deal with, such as practice, workouts, study hall hours, games, etc. I mentioned the online classes because at the time these were basically the same as independent studies, except less work was required in my experience. We had to get on a forum and post about a topic and comment on a selection that we were to have read. A certain number of insightful posts were connected to a certain grade. I remind you that this was back in 1999 - 2003 when online courses were just beginning and people were learning about the internet, so I assume a lot has changed since then. Very few, if any, of the online courses I took had a final exam, but they all had some type of final assignment such as a paper. I did not take any of these classes to raise my GPA or to stay eligible. I took them because I needed a certain requirement, and due to time constraints this was sometimes the only way I could complete a course. 

I did not play for Coach Williams, but I have had the privilege to get to know him outside of basketball. His daughter and my wife were on the dance team at UNC together, and my father’s recently deceased best friend was a good friend of Coach Williams. Also, my grandparents were close with Coach Smith, so they also got to know Coach Williams, and I personally came to know him through one of my good friends who was an assistant golf coach at UNC. Why does all this matter? It probably does not matter to many of you, but it allowed me to see Coach Williams in many different facets of life. I discovered that he is one of the most caring, dedicated, hardworking, and driven individuals any of us would ever met. He would come to UNC anytime he did not have a game at Kansas to watch his daughter dance when she was selected to do so. He wears purple on his shoes during Coaches vs. Cancer week for one of his best friends battling pancreatic cancer. He went to my father’s friend’s funeral during the middle of the season to show his support for the family. He would ask me how my family was doing whenever I saw him. He would do any of this for almost anyone whether he knew them or not. More importantly, he would do all of this and more for UNC. He loves and cares about this university as many alumni do.

This isn’t about Coach Williams, even though I felt like I needed to write that and I could write much more. This is about UNC and its reputation. I am only one person, but I know there are many just like me, and many who are more qualified to write this, but we do not have a forum to be heard, or we are not famous enough to where we can make a comment and people will listen. The sexy story is academic fraud or agents running wild, but I think it has been overblown regarding a small few, and the majority of students and student-athletes specifically have not been heard from. Some of them don’t have the time to try to find a forum to be heard in, and even if they did, their message may fall on deaf ears. That's why I felt like I needed to write something to get it off my chest and give another side of the story that may alert the masses that there is a different side and likely a more common side to this story.

We all know there have been issues at UNC, but too many people are ignoring the bigger picture and the more common experiences such as mine in favor of the few that make the story more of a fictitious drama than actual real life events. I wrote this because I would not trade the educational, athletic, and social experience I had at UNC for the experience at any other institution. I believe there is far more positive than negative at UNC, especially when it comes to being a student-athlete.

Again, I'm Bob Cherry, and I am a Tar Heel. Thank you for reading.

Bradley Bethel, the primary writer for Coaching the Mind, contributed as editor for this essay.