Sam Schaefer is a junior history and public policy major from Chapel Hill.
I remember my throat burning. I was 10 years old and I was yelling louder than I had ever yelled in my life.
The clock was running out on UNC basketball’s victory against Illinois in the 2005 championship game. I whooped and jumped around my living room as Sean May enveloped Roy Williams in a bear hug.
I’m part of a blue-blood Carolina family. My grandfather is a Professor Emeritus of this university. My parents, my older brother, an aunt and an uncle graduated from here, and I’ve lived in Chapel Hill my entire life.
For all that time, I’ve wanted to be part of this community that has shaped my family’s destiny and, for more than 100 years, this community has unified around UNC basketball. I never had any reason to question my firm belief that UNC basketball was a force for good that reflected the values of this University.
But my family also taught me to commit myself to living ethically, and it taught me to be skeptical — values that this University actively promotes.
So for the last few years, as a scandal has shaken this University to its core, my memories have become tainted. Unethical behavior existed in the very programs that provided the University with a common culture.
But this scandal has not sprung up as an isolated event. Deborah Crowder, Jan Boxill and Julius Nyang’oro did a host of things wrong, but placing the blame for this scandal at their feet and their feet only is an act of cowardice. We must examine more closely why they did what they did. A large part of that answer will come from an examination of a collegiate model that encourages contradictions and hypocrisies — a system my fanship has been complicit in promoting.
It is indicative of just how flawed our system of college athletics is that well-meaning and formerly respected members of our University broke ethical boundaries and ignored rules in an attempt to prop up our collective illusion of “The Carolina Way,” and help athletes attempting to succeed in a system rigged against them.
This scandal has come at a time when, nationally, the model of big-time college athletics has come under attack for being exploitative. Some of the key members of this movement have been members of our community: Mary Willingham blew the whistle on the fake classes at UNC and has tirelessly advocated for athletes, even as she was forced out of her job. Taylor Branch, a UNC alumnus and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, helped to spark the national conversation around this issue with an incisive piece in The Atlantic.
Yet I don’t feel that we have collectively taken full stock of why wrongdoing happened at this University, and I am disturbed. We seem to be heading into basketball season ready to retire this discussion and pass the scandal off as the actions of a few individuals.
We are all responsible if we let this happen. But the greatest responsibility for action should fall on the University’s administration, which has unfortunately helped to promote a narrative of events that de-emphasizes their national context, proposed instituting only minor reforms, disproportionately blamed the former department of African and Afro-American Studies and has failed to apologize for bullying Willingham.
I recognize that administrators are in a tough spot. These issues present the possibility of hard choices, and they are dealing with pressures from outside institutions that are difficult to comprehend. But there are some important ways that they have not lived up to their responsibility of upholding this University’s mission to be an honorable institution.
I cannot totally reject the central cultural role athletics play at our University — they have been an essential part of my identity for my entire life — nor can I dishonor the admirable and backbreaking work our athletes perform for this community. But I can’t watch UNC basketball with a totally clear conscience anymore.
Tonight, I’m going to be at the game against Iowa, and I am going to cheer on our team as loud as I ever have. But I’m going to try to be cognizant of what, exactly, I’m watching, and I’m not going to stop talking about these issues until we embrace our University’s responsibility to lead the movement for a much-needed overhaul of college athletics. I hope I am joined by more voices in our community in doing so.