Fed up with scandal and supposed media lies, ‘Unverified’ doc hits a nerve at UNC

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University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill Tar Heels fans at a football game. Credit: Elliott Rubin.

Controversy in college sports isn’t unusual but usually fighting on the field makes the news.

At University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill it’s the professors, boosters and fans who are throwing ‘bows and calling each other names.

For years now there have been stories of student athletes who receive easy grades and take bogus classes. That’s a familiar accusation at most big sports colleges in America but then a critical study was produced that claimed to find evidence of favoritism and the term “Paper Classes” became a rallying cry.

Former UNC employee Bradley Bethel says that the study and people who accepted its findings are all wrong.

So last month he started a crowdfunding campaign to make a documentary to prove that the reputation of the prestigious university and its players are being dragged through the mud by pundits and the national media.

The response was swift.

His campaign hit its $50,000 goal in one day and with a little over two days to go, the 30-day campaign has raised more than $120,000.

“For over three years now, local and national media outlets have been perpetuating a sensationalized narrative based on conjecture, insinuation and false information,” Bethel said on his campaign page.  “As a result, what you think you know about the alleged athletics scandal at UNC is probably wrong.”

Mary Willingham, a former academic advisor at UNC who tutored student athletes, describes an institution that protects and coddles unprepared college athletes by funneling them through independent study courses with the academic rigor of a middle school.

About a year ago Bethel started taking small bites out of the prominent narrative of Willingham’s research from his blog Coaching the Mind.

He contends that Willingham’s findings were collected unethically, contain erroneous conclusions and that the data was paired with unfairly hand-selected anecdotes. In short: student athletes were getting an unjust bad rap.

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UNC player Tyler Zeller warms up at the Carrier Classic aboard USS Carl Vinson in 2011. Credit: U.S. Navy.

To create the documentary, Bethel has assembled a talented group of professionals, including producer Connie Lo Ferrara, associate producer of a documentary that examines the media’s account of the Penn State sexual abuse scandal.

In his blog, Bethel said his motivation behind the documentary goes all the way back to his childhood when he was hesitant to prevent the harassment of his friend from the neighborhood bully.

“I could not tolerate feeling like I was back at the neighborhood basketball court, watching my friend get punched in the face. I had to fight back, whether or not anyone else wanted me to do so.”

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UNC Chapel Hill vs. Michigan State University at the Carrier Classic in San Diego in 2011. Credit: U.S. Navy.

UNC professor Jay M. Smith joined forces with Willingham to create Paper Class Inc., an organization pushing educational reform by igniting a national conversation around literacy and athletics.

Last year Smith called Bethel a “rabid attack dog” on the site Paper Classes Inc.

“He wants to protect…the collegiate model of sport whose virtues he has made part of his own identity, the very justification for his professional life,” Smith wrote on the website.

Later this year Smith and Willingham will release the book Cheated: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-Time College Sports.

Correction: The original version of this story stated that the 2011 Carrier Classic was played between UNC and University of Michigan when in fact the game played between UNC and Michigan State University. We regret the error.

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Justin Cooper
Justin is currently pursuing his Master’s degree in American Literature at San Diego State University (SDSU). He has served as an editor of the Southwestern College Sun and a senior staff writer for the Daily Aztec at SDSU.

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