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UNC Shouldn't Fire Coach Roy Williams for the Fake-Classes Scandal. It Could Have Been Much, Much Worse.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

What did Roy Williams know and when did he know it? That’s the question on the minds of many college sports fans (or at least college sports scandal fans) these days. Three weeks after attorney Kenneth Wainstein released his investigative report detailing a nearly two-decade long “shadow curriculum” that improperly benefited thousands of students, many of them student-athletes, at the University of North Carolina, the focus is now on what role Williams, the school’s Hall of Fame men’s basketball coach, played in the fraud. And though it currently seems unlikely that UNC will heed the voices calling for Williams to be fired, it’s starting to look like a distinct possibility that the coach will join the rogues gallery of college sports villains. That would be a shame. While it’s doubtful that Williams is innocent in this scandal, his actions—viewed through a certain lens—might actually be commendable.

Ironically, the Wainstein Report itself essentially exonerated Williams, who told investigators that he didn’t know that his players were taking sham “paper classes”—classes that never met and that were being graded by an office manager named Debra Crowder rather than a professor—in UNC’s African-American studies department. What’s more, the Wainstein Report found that although many UNC basketball players were enrolled in “paper classes” when Williams was hired in 2003, after a few years that practice stopped. Hence Wainstein’s conclusion that Williams’s actions were “inconsistent with being complicit with or really trying to promote the scheme.”

The problem for Williams is that the Wainstein Report, much to the chagrin of some UNC backers, hasn’t been the final word on the matter. On Sunday, Dan Kane, the Raleigh News & Observer reporter who has doggedly covered (and, often, uncovered) the scandal from its outset, called into question Williams’s account of his actions, noting that, over the years, the coach’s story has changed. While Williams told Wainstein that his players ultimately stopped taking the AFAM “paper classes” because the coach preferred they take lecture classes instead of independent studies (the latter of which was how the “paper classes” were officially described), Kane notes that, prior to the Wainstein Report, Williams had repeatedly maintained that his players’ moving away from the AFAM courses was basically a coincidence. “Maybe guys, girls, just decided not to take certain classes,” the coach told the N&O in 2012.

It’s easy to see why Kane (and now other national reporters following his lead) would want to scrutinize Williams’s testimony to Wainstein. It’s not because, as some of my foolish fellow Tar Heel fans maintain, Kane is on a vendetta. It’s because Williams’s testimony is very convenient—perhaps too convenient. Yes, Williams essentially told Wainstein, I did have concerns about the AFAM classes and that’s why my players stopped taking them; but no, I had no idea those classes were actually fraudulent. The fact that Williams’s account was backed up to Wainstein by an assistant coach and an academic advisor who are both deeply loyal to Williams is even more convenient. Without subpoena power or the ability to interview people under oath, Wainstein wasn’t able to subject these convenient accounts to much scrutiny. Indeed, you don’t have to be a Duke fan to conjure a scenario in which Williams did get wind—from the assistant coach or the academic advisor, the latter of whom admitted to Wainstein that he knew about the paper classes but “could not recall” that he ever told Williams about them—that his players were taking sham classes and then decided to quietly steer them toward other classes.

But, if that in fact is what happened, I don’t necessarily believe that’s an indictment of Williams. Rather, it’s probably to his credit. Yes, it would have been nice if Williams had not only moved to extricate his basketball players from the “paper classes” but had also alerted his bosses to those classes, so that student-athletes on other UNC teams (like football, women’s basketball, and women’s soccer) would stop taking them. But, if you know anything about college sports today—a world in which plausible deniability is the coin of the realm—that’s a fantasy. As CBS’s Gary Parrish recently wrote:

[W]hat Williams did here is essentially the same thing so many other high-profile coaches have done in similarly sketchy situations for decades and decades, i.e., table suspicions of improper behavior, at least temporarily, in the spirit of wins and protecting the brand. 

Except that Williams didn’t actually table his suspicions (however vague he maintains those suspicions were). He acted on them and, although he didn’t bring an end to the “paper classes” scam, he at least ended his team’s participation in it. In the cesspool that is big-time college sports, that’s a commendable course of action. As an athletic department official at one college sports powerhouse put it to me, “Out of the 300 Division One basketball coaches, 290 of them would have looked the other way and perpetuated the fraud, 8 of them would have stopped participating in it, and maybe 1 or 2 would have actually blown the whistle on the whole thing.” Looking at the situation that way, what Williams did isn’t just defensible. It might actually be admirable.

The problem for UNC and Williams, of course, is that, were they to embrace such an argument, they’d be admitting just how debased big-time college sports have become. And, despite acknowledging that their university perpetuated an academic fraud for 18 years, they’re still not willing to admit to that general level of debasement. No matter how problematic college sports becomes, the cult of the coach remains strong. So instead of acknowledging that coaches are imperfect men navigating a profoundly imperfect system, you get things like Williams claiming he was “dumbfounded” by Wainstein’s report; and Williams’s boss, UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham, going on Williams’s radio show to “talk a little bit about a lot of things that have been in the paper lately” and hail the coach’s “personal integrity.” Which, of course, does nothing to silence the coach’s critics or reassure his doubters—and only increases the likelihood that his handling of the scandal will be viewed as a black mark on, rather than a credit to, his off-the-court record.