Friday, July 25, 2014

Steering the Narrative (Part 2): Mary Willingham's and Michael McAdoo's Overlapping Claims

This is Part 2 of a three-part essay. You can read Part 1 here.

“Steering” Michael McAdoo

Former UNC basketball player Rashad McCants has been, in the words of another former UNC basketball player, quite the “clown” lately. However, despite his onslaught of defamatory and ludicrous claims, he deserves some credit for his willingness to disclose his transcript to ESPN. That is more than can be said for former UNC football player Michael McAdoo, who has also made negative claims about his academic experiences at UNC but has never provided even circumstantial evidence (beyond his plagiarized paper) to verify those claims. While UNC detractors cry for more athletes to release their transcripts, perhaps they should direct their pleas first to McAdoo.

McAdoo initially interjected himself into the controversy over the UNC scandal in an op-ed written by New York Times columnist Joe Nocera three months after Mary Willingham’s first appearance in the news. Throughout his interviews, McAdoo has consistently lamented his experience of being “steered” to the AFAM major and the substandard AFRI and AFAM “paper classes.” Not a single interviewer, however, has ever posed to McAdoo any challenging questions to solicit from him a rich explanation of how he was “steered,” nor have any journalists asked the former player to provide any academic records, such as transcripts, that could provide relevant insight into his academic experience. Instead, McAdoo’s vague and unverified claims, as reported by Nocera, Dan Kane, and others, have left careful readers with too many unanswered questions to develop a comprehensive understanding of the situation.

Nocera’s column about McAdoo warrants scrutiny here because it was published nearly a year before Kane wrote his own story about McAdoo. Therefore, as an investigative reporter doing his job, Kane should have scrutinized Nocera’s column and inquired about any discrepancies or missing details before Kane himself reported on McAdoo. Unfortunately, however, Kane did not question Nocera’s portrayal of McAdoo nearly as critically as he questioned Jay Bilas’s portrayal of Roy Williams. On the contrary, Kane seems to have accepted Nocera’s entire portrayal without even the slightest measure of scrutiny.

Published online the evening of February 4, 2013, Nocera’s column is titled “Academic Counseling Racket.” That afternoon, Nocera emailed one of my former colleagues to inquire about her “side of the story.” However, the general tone of the email demonstrated very clearly that his inquiry was merely a formality: he had already come to his conclusion before contacting her. His email, in its entirety, is as follows:

I spent about an hour today talking to Michael McAdoo and his mother. I wanted to understand what an athlete goes through when there is an NCAA/university investigation. In the course of the conversation he told me that he had no say in which classes he took, that the “paper classes” he “attended” were all the result of academic support telling him to take those classes, that no one ever told the players they shouldn’t talk to Jennifer Wiley, even though the department had fired her. He mentioned you in particular, saying that you told him he would be unable to major in criminal justice, as he had originally planned. I am planning to say most of this in my column, which I will start writing shortly (it is for tomorrow’s paper). I would very much appreciate hearing your side of the story. I can be reached at the two numbers below. Thanks in advance. Joe Nocera.

First, the fact that Nocera went from interviewing his subjects to publishing the article in less than a day reveals all we need to know about his (dis)regard for the principle of verification. Evidently, Nocera believes that if a New York Times writer refers to his stories as op-eds rather than news reports, the writer need not comply with any journalistic standards. Forget the social responsibility bestowed upon writers who command a platform as prominent as the New York Times Opinion Page. Opinions, after all, do not require verified facts, right?

That Nocera had obviously reached his conclusion prior to contacting my former colleague made her hesitant to call him. Nonetheless, she briefly spoke with him, though to little avail. During their conversation, she confirmed to Nocera that she did, in fact, tell McAdoo he could not major in Criminal Justice. However, she had good reason for the prohibition against that particular major: UNC does not have it. McAdoo and his mother could have easily discerned that by visiting the university’s website. Nocera himself could have obtained that information within seconds and then asked McAdoo and his mother—who is a schoolteacher—why they had never bothered to view the lists of majors at the colleges that recruited McAdoo. Instead, Nocera crafted a narrative of victimization, in which he strategically omits the part of the story where McAdoo and his college-educated mother should have been more attentive to McAdoo’s future college plans. Insinuating that McAdoo was misled about UNC’s majors, Nocera writes,

[McAdoo] had been an O.K. 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.

What Nocera failed to include in his story is the fact that, during the recruiting process at UNC, every football player and his parent(s) attend at least one academics presentation that includes information about UNC’s majors. Nocera never outright claims McAdoo’s “recruiters” lied to him, but by skipping the part of the story in which McAdoo and his mother would have been informed about UNC’s majors, Nocera insinuates McAdoo was misled.

Nocera’s insinuation underscores his thesis that academic counseling is a “racket” designed strictly to keep athletes eligible to play. Nocera writes, “According to McAdoo, his counselor picked his major, African-American studies, because it wouldn’t interfere with football practice.” If McAdoo’s allegation were true, Nocera’s argument might be sound. However, McAdoo was not an AFAM major. As the media guide from his last year indicates, McAdoo was an Exercise and Sport Science (EXSS) major.

In other words, McAdoo appears to have lied.

Nocera could have easily verified McAdoo’s major by visiting the UNC Athletics department’s website, where all the football media guides from the previous 13 years are available. In 2008, McAdoo’s first year, he was unlisted in the media guide. The next year, his major was undeclared, which is common for first- and second-year students still contemplating their options. All UNC students are required to commit to a major by their third year, and McAdoo declared EXSS his major. When exactly McAdoo declared EXSS his major is not public knowledge, but, of course, Nocera (and the other journalists who have reported on McAdoo) could have determined that information by persuading McAdoo to give the university consent to release his academic records. Regardless, we can be confident that McAdoo initially took time to consider different majors and then declared EXSS his major. No one compelled him to major in AFAM.

Again, even in the absence of transcripts and other academic records, a journalist doing his job would have solicited the details and rich descriptions from McAdoo to provide readers with an accurate and comprehensive understanding of the situation. Neither Nocera nor Kane, however, demonstrated any interest in the relevant facts about McAdoo’s academic experience. Kane, writing nearly a year later, reports that McAdoo was “steered” to four “paper classes” during his three years at UNC. Commenting on one “paper class” in particular, McAdoo claimed,

[The academic counselors] pretty much put me in that class. They pretty much told me [. . .] that I might want to consider that class and I really don’t have much time to think about it, so (I might) want to take that class while it was available.

Using quotes in which the speaker repeats the phrase “pretty much” pretty much demonstrates Kane has no genuine interest in details and rich explanations. Kane’s complacency becomes even more apparent when we contrast McAdoo’s early quote in the story with another quote from close to the end of the article. As the story is nearing its conclusion, McAdoo explained that he and other players were happy to take the “paper classes.” He stated,

I didn't think twice about it. I was young and [the academic counselors] was like, “You could get a quick three (credit) hours.”

So was McAdoo “pretty much” forced into the classes, or was he happy to take them?

As is often the case with Kane’s stories, careful readers are left with many lingering questions. If McAdoo was an AFAM major, as he claimed to Nocera, would the four “paper classes” not have counted toward his major? If he was an EXSS major, as indicated by the media guide, did the four classes not count toward his general education requirements? Why, out of the approximately 30 total classes he would have taken over three years was he "steered" to only four of the “paper classes”? Were there other classes he wanted to take instead? If so, could he demonstrate those other classes were available and counted toward his degree requirements? How successful was he, the son of a schoolteacher, in his other approximately 26 classes? Did he himself ever request to take a “paper class”? Did any professors from classes outside of AFAM ever suspect him of cheating? Could McAdoo be projecting false memories onto his experience to absolve himself of the blame for his dismissive attitude toward academics?

Journalists, pundits, and UNC detractors have cited McAdoo’s claims as evidence of the “academic counseling racket,” but, as is evident, McAdoo has misrepresented his academic experience, and the circumstances surrounding his enrollment in four “paper classes” over three years remain vague and unverified. McAdoo, like McCants, is not a credible source. (Click here for a must-read story about another former college football player who misrepresented his collegiate experience to the media.)

"Hundreds" of Fake Degrees

Of course, both Nocera and Kane also quoted Willingham in their respective stories about McAdoo, as many journalists have over the past year and a half. Willingham has consistently parroted McAdoo’s claim that academic counselors “steered” football players to the AFRI and AFAM majors and “paper classes” to keep the players eligible for competition. She even founded a company called Paper Class Inc., with the motto, “We must offer equal access to a real education for ALL of our students." However, despite consistently reciting the catchphrase “real education” across her interviews, she has never explained its meaning. When interviewed on HBO’s Real Sports, Willingham made the staggering claim that “hundreds” of UNC athletes were denied a “real degree from the University of North Carolina.” Bernie Goldberg, the journalist conducting the interview, did not bother asking her to explain how she estimated the number to be in the hundreds or what she meant by a “real degree.” Why would he? Sensationalism, not details and nuance, wins Emmy Awards.

The same day the Real Sports episode aired, Kane published perhaps his most pathetic article to date, offering no original contributions and merely rehashing parts of the Real Sports episode (as well as parts of an ESPN Outside the Lines episode). Published as an entry in the N&O’s “Investigations Blog,” Kane’s article would have been an appropriate medium through which to ask pointed questions about the claims made on the Real Sports episode, but, instead, Kane exploited the opportunity to propagate the sensationalized narrative he and the N&O have been steering.

To begin with, Kane could have queried Willingham about how she distinguishes between a “real degree” and one that is presumably fake. Furthermore, he could have asked how she concluded that “hundreds” of UNC athletes were denied a “real degree.” Certainly, she could not have arrived at her estimate by calculating the number of AFRI and AFAM majors among the revenue sports during her years working with athletes, from 2003 – 2010. According to media guides, the total number of football and men’s basketball players who majored in AFRI or AFAM during those seven years was 49. At that rate, if we understand “hundreds” to mean more than 200, we would have to extend the time frame back more than 28 years to reach hundreds of revenue athletes majoring in AFRI or AFAM. Twenty-eight years ago was well before Julius Nyang’oro started teaching at UNC.

Clearly, Willingham’s estimate that hundreds of athletes were denied a “real degree” was not based on any numbers publicly available. Unfortunately, however, because Kane failed to exhibit even the slightest spark of investigative curiosity when he wrote his little report about the Real Sports episode, we do not have any explanation of Willingham’s claim, and we may never know whether she has any actual quantitative evidence to support it.

Kane also failed to exhibit any interest in following up with the two former UNC football players featured in the Real Sports episode. Specifically, Kane could have asked McAdoo why he again alleged that academic counselors compelled him to major in AFAM, though his major was actually EXSS. Likewise, Kane could have asked Bryon Bishop, the other former UNC player featured in the Real Sports episode, to clarify his similar allegation. Bishop alleged that academic counselors enrolled him as an AFAM major soon after he began college at UNC. However, as the media guides indicate, Bishop’s major was initially undeclared his freshmen year, and he changed it each year thereafter. For his sophomore year, he declared Communications (COMM) his major, and for his junior year, both AFAM and COMM. For his senior year, he again declared COMM his single major, but alumni records do indicate he switched to AFAM to finish his degree. Yet Kane never bothered asking Bishop to explain why he alleged being immediately compelled to major in AFAM, though he actually changed his major throughout his college career.

The numbers and percentages of revenue athletes majoring in AFRI or AFAM during any given year casts even further doubt on Willingham’s, McAdoo’s, and Bishop’s claim that athletes were “steered” to those majors. During the same seven-year period that Willingham worked with athletes, the number of football players who were majoring in AFRI or AFAM exceeded 10 only one year. Moreover, the percentage of football players majoring in AFRI or AFAM never exceeded 13%, which is significantly short of the 25% threshold to be considered major clustering. Among the men’s basketball teams during Willingham’s seven years working with athletes, the 2003-2004 and 2004-2005 teams were the only ones to have more than two players majoring in AFRI or AFAM, and the 2004-2005 team was the only one to meet the 25% threshold for major clustering. The numbers clearly do not support the claim that athletes were "steered" to the AFRI and AFAM majors. (Click here for a listing of the athletes majoring in AFRI or AFAM each year.)

As an investigative reporter staking his career on the UNC scandal, Kane should know the facts, and he should have followed up with Willingham, McAdoo, and Bishop to question their claims. If nothing else, he should have highlighted Goldberg’s failure to facilitate anything resembling a thorough investigative interview, especially considering Kane’s criticism of Bilas’s interview three months later. Instead, Kane did nothing more than complacently summarize the Real Sports episode.

When we scrutinize Willingham’s claims about academic counselors’ “steering” athletes who were denied a “real education,” and when we recognize the discrepancies between the two former football players’ allegations and the facts, we see that Kane and other journalists made no effort at verification and utterly failed to solicit and provide sufficient details and rich explanations. Rather ironically, Kane and other journalists have steered the narrative to sensationalism far more egregiously than academic counselors ever steered football players to “paper classes.”

Where are the investigative reporters who will live up to the standards Kane so clearly articulated? Obviously, they are not at the N&O.

Click here to read Part 3: The Martin Report.