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‘Unverified’ documentary challenges UNC academic-athletic scandal narratives

Clarification: The (Raleigh) News & Observer agreed to go on the record with Bradley Bethel and have a discussion but did not agree to go on camera, according to John Drescher, the executive editor of the paper. He said Bethel declined the offer.

Bradley Bethel, the former UNC learning specialist turned cinematographer, debuted his film, “Unverified: The Untold Story Behind the UNC Scandal,” to a select audience Friday.

Attendees included many people who have been affected by the scandal, such as now-fired athletic tutor Jaimie Lee, former men’s basketball assistant coach Joe Holladay and several former UNC student-athletes.

The film was advertised as the story of the “other side” of the UNC academic-athletic scandal, revolving around personal interviews with Bethel’s close friends, Lee and former athletic tutor Beth Bridger.

Bridger and Lee were fired after investigator Kenneth Wainstein’s report revealed their involvement in the paper classes within the former Department of African and Afro-American Studies.

Bethel said he specifically hoped to correct what he called the media’s sensationalism of the scandal.

“‘If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re misinformed,’ Mark Twain,” the first scene of the movie read.

The most revealing interview was with former UNC Chancellor James Moeser, who was at the helm of the University when the number of paper classes peaked.

“AFAM was given a kind of pass because no one wanted to be seen as dealing harshly with the African, the African-American studies department — candidly,” Moeser said when asked why deans that had knowledge of irregular classes did not act.

“It was a corruption of our higher values. These were people who were trying to help other people — people who were mostly poor, mostly black, coming from very poor households — and trying to give them a leg up.”

Bridger, Lee and Deunta Williams, a former UNC football player, defended the rigor of the paper classes.

“Some of the topics these kids had to write about, they got more out of that than sitting in a math class or sitting in a history class,” Bridger said in the film.

Wainstein’s report found that the classes, which began in 1993 and ended in 2011, helped boost athletes’ and non-athletes’ GPAs and were favorably graded by former office administrator Deborah Crowder, a non-faculty member.

Bethel challenged the Wainstein report — and UNC administration’s response — throughout the film.

“University leaders seemed content to let those associated with athletics take the blame, and the news media quickly propagated this narrative,” one Bethel voice-over said.

Bethel asked why his two friends were found responsible of academic fraud by Wainstein but not the deans above them.

The film said Chancellor Carol Folt declined to be interviewed and former UNC-system President Tom Ross did not respond to a request for an interview.

UNC spokesperson Jim Gregory said the chancellor does not comment on personnel issues but provided Bethel with materials on personnel decisions stemming from the Wainstein report.

Many journalists who have reported on the UNC scandal either declined to be interviewed or were not allowed to do an interview by their news agencies, according to the film, including The (Raleigh) News & Observer’s Dan Kane, CNN’s Sara Ganim and HBO Real Sports’ Bernard Goldberg. Wainstein also declined to be interviewed for the film.

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Bethel quit his job at the University last year to work on the project, which was crowdfunded and raised $50,000 in its first day. The film eventually raised more than $140,000. “Unverified” will be showing at Varsity Theatre today and Tuesday.