Admission officials pressured to admit athletes into graduate programs

| March 1, 2015

unc logo sportsby Dan Kane, News and Observer, February 28, 2015.

Michael Waddell had a low grade point average, no entrance exam score and was months past the deadline when an athletic official sought to have the football player admitted to UNC’s graduate school in fall 2003.

John Blanchard, then a senior associate athletic director, made the request after classes began, on Sept. 5, just as Waddell was about to be declared ineligible to play against Syracuse the following day, according to records obtained by The News & Observer.

The plea to admit Waddell went up to UNC’s provost, Robert Shelton. Email correspondence indicates Shelton saw no policy that would allow Waddell to enroll, but instead of telling him no, Shelton left it up to Linda Dykstra, the graduate school dean.

Dykstra admitted Waddell, who had already played in the season opener at Florida State. He would play against Syracuse and all but one of the other nine remaining games that season.

Waddell is one of several athletes UNC athletics officials sought to keep eligible to play by getting them into graduate school, according to Cheryl Thomas, the graduate school’s admissions director from 2002 to 2010. Thomas, 51, who no longer works in higher education, supplied documentation about Waddell to The N&O after first sending it to the NCAA and the agency that accredits the university.

Waddell, a cornerback and kick returner, would go on to have his fourth year of eligibility at UNC as a graduate student and attract the interest of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans, who drafted him in the fourth round. But as a graduate student, Waddell skipped classes and exams, flunking out with four F’s, university correspondence shows.

Thomas told her superiors that Waddell should not be admitted and that officials at the Exercise and Sports Science Department knew he was not there to legitimately pursue a course of study.

“They know he has not applied and would not meet the minimum requirements for admission, yet the EXSS is willing to accept him as a non-degree seeking, one semester only, graduate student so his football eligibility will continue, if the (graduate school) will allow it,” Thomas wrote.

In an interview, Thomas said that roughly once a year during her eight years as admissions director, someone from the athletics department or the UNC administration would contact her with a request to find a place for an athlete. The last she received involved Justin Knox, a basketball player who had graduated from the University of Alabama in 2010 but still had one more season of eligibility.

Waddell and Knox are the only athletes she recalls by name. She said she does not know whether any of the other athletes were admitted over her objections. That includes one unnamed athlete she cited in a 2003 email about Waddell’s case.

A review of UNC’s football and men’s basketball team rosters since the 2000-01 academic year shows Waddell and Knox as the only graduate students.

Knox was admitted to UNC after the graduate school deadline, and while a former UNC professor said he was a good student, Knox also left after his college eligibility was used up. He did not receive a degree and left to play basketball in Europe.

Thomas said her unwillingness to toe the line over such admissions, along with other unrelated management concerns, put her at odds with her supervisors. She resigned in 2010 after nearly 22 years as a university employee.

She said admitting unqualified athletes to highly competitive graduate school programs so they can continue playing is fundamentally wrong. UNC’s graduate school typically rejects about two-thirds of the roughly 15,000 students who apply each year.

“You can’t turn down thousands of people and say yes to one just so he can play basketball,” she said.

Pressure from athletics

Thomas’ assertions, bolstered by the correspondence in Waddell’s case, could raise new issues for a university already struggling with what is believed to be the biggest academic scandal in NCAA history. The troubles within the African studies department involved fake classes that brought high grades for little work and were hatched after pressure from counselors in the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes.

Former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein’s critical report on the scandal caused Thomas to come forward. Shortly after his report came out in October, she sent the correspondence regarding Waddell to Wainstein, the NCAA and the commission that accredits UNC. She said all acknowledged receiving the correspondence, but after nearly three months with no further contact, she reached out to The News & Observer in January.

Waddell’s case points to an issue rarely discussed in college sports – the use of graduate school programs to extend an athlete’s eligibility. There’s far more attention placed on athletes’ qualifications to be admitted as undergraduates and on their academic work toward a bachelor’s degree.

Some athletes who have graduated have a fourth year of athletic eligibility left because they were held out of competition – called redshirting – for a year to recover from an injury or improve in practice.

Waddell, however, had been required to sit out his freshman year because his standardized test score and high school grade point average made him a “partial qualifier” by NCAA standards, according to a 2003 N&O story. That meant he would have only three years of eligibility as an undergraduate but could gain a fourth by entering grad school.

Waddell’s correspondence shows he and an athletics official used the graduate school to keep him eligible to play after he learned he couldn’t continue taking undergraduate classes after graduating with an African studies degree in summer 2003. It is unclear whether Waddell took any of the fake classes offered during that time, but the 2003 N&O story notes him taking an “independent study” AFAM class that summer.

Two of the people involved in the Waddell case have ties to sports at UNC. Kevin Guskiewicz, a professor and director of the Exercise and Sports Science’s graduate studies program in 2003, is a nationally known expert on sports-related concussions, which have emerged as a major problem in football. He was named a senior associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences in 2013.

Shelton, the former provost, left UNC in 2006 to become president of the University of Arizona. Five years later, he became the Fiesta Bowl’s executive director. He left last year to lead the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, a foundation based in Tucson.

Guskiewicz said he would not talk about Waddell, citing the federal Family and Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which keeps many student education records private. Shelton said he did not recall the case but said he would not have sought to admit an athlete to graduate school so he could continue playing.

Extensive efforts to reach Waddell for comment were unsuccessful.

Skipping classes, exams

The correspondence about Waddell’s graduate school admission shows it created serious problems for the Exercise and Sports Science Department. And in a scathing letter dated Jan. 21, 2004, Guskiewicz let Blanchard know it.

“As you know, (department chairman) Fred Mueller and I ‘went out on a limb’ to try and help an unfortunate situation – whereby Michael was evidently misinformed by your office that he could enroll in the Sport Administration Graduate Program so that he could be enrolled as a student-athlete at UNC-CH. He was about to be declared ineligible the day before the Syracuse game when you approached me about how we might help.

“After several discussions with you, the Dean’s office, and faculty in our department, we sent the letter requesting a special admit (something we have never done before) with the understanding that Michael would live up to his end of the bargain – attending classes regularly, handing in all assignments, and making every effort possible to succeed in the classes.”

But according to the letter, by midsemester Guskiewicz and others in the department realized Waddell wasn’t attending classes and had missed “at least one exam, but were told it was being addressed.”

Waddell continued to miss classes and exams and did not turn in assignments needed to pass the classes, the letter says.

“We were willing to accept Michael Waddell and his very marginal undergraduate GPA because we believed that helping a student, and a group of colleagues in the Athletic Department was the right thing to do at the time,” Guskiewicz wrote. “Four months later, we now look foolish.”

He said Waddell’s failing grades pulled down the department’s annual GPA, and he vowed he would “no longer threaten our department’s integrity by this sort of arrangement.”

“As a result, we have raised the bar a level higher for this year’s applicants to the program, and hope that this will reflect our commitment to excellence in the eyes of the Graduate School,” Guskiewicz wrote.

‘Very sad situation’

Blanchard was a senior associate athletic director at UNC until he retired in 2013. By then, he had emerged as a key figure in the academic scandal, by virtue of his role as the de facto leader of the athletes’ academic support program.

The Wainstein report found the academic support program steered athletes to classes that had no instruction and provided high grades. Athletes made up half of the enrollments in the classes. Blanchard told investigators he knew they didn’t meet, but he did not know there was no instructor. Blanchard could not be reached for comment.

Linda Dykstra was the graduate school dean at the time of Waddell’s admission. In an emailed response, she described it as “this very sad situation in which several individuals were misled by the stated intentions of an applicant to the Graduate School.”

She did not explain why she allowed him to enter. She and Steve Matson, the current graduate school dean, said academic departments have different criteria for admission and can request exceptions to allow for a late application, or low or no GRE score. Typically in those cases, other factors compensate, such as work experience or a bachelor’s degree in a difficult field.

Dykstra acknowledged those examples did not explain Waddell’s situation.

University is mum

In spring 2010, basketball coach Roy Williams suddenly needed help in the frontcourt after big men Travis and David Wear opted to transfer to UCLA. He recruited 6-foot-9 Justin Knox, who had grown dissatisfied playing for Alabama in his first three years and wanted to transfer.

That would typically require sitting out a year, but Knox got around that hurdle by collecting his bachelor’s degree a year early. He could then transfer and play immediately as a graduate student at another school.

Thomas, the former graduate school admissions director, said she got a call to make an exception for Knox, who applied past the admissions deadline. She does not have records involving Knox’s enrollment.

Thomas said Matson, who replaced Dykstra as dean of the graduate school in 2008, let Knox enroll in the Exercise and Sport Science’s sports management program. Matson would not talk about Knox, citing the federal privacy law.

Richard Southall is a former professor in the Exercise and Sports Science Department who handled Knox’s graduate admission. Southall is also director of a research institute that scrutinizes college sports, and he has criticized big money’s influence on college sports.

He confirmed Knox missed the application deadline. But he said Knox was a good enough student to be admitted and did the work while he was enrolled. According to a Tuscaloosa News report on May 4, 2010, Knox had a 3.6 GPA in business management at the time he was seeking to transfer, and was a salutatorian of his high school class.

Southall could not recall whether Knox had taken the GRE. “He did all the coursework, attended all the classes,” Southall said. “It was actually one of those cases that he did a much better job than what the expectation was of what he was going to do.”

Knox, who plays basketball in a Puerto Rican league, could not be reached. A UNC spokesman said Williams declined to comment.

Two professors with expertise in college sports matters – Bruce Svare at the State University of New York at Albany and Matt Mitten at Marquette University – say lowering the bar to admit athletes to graduate school so they can play another season could pose NCAA issues. Both cited NCAA regulations related to academic integrity in admissions, while Svare also said Waddell’s case raises the possibility of an extra benefit that nonathletes may have been denied.

The NCAA is investigating the fake class scandal. A UNC spokesman, Rick White, referred all questions to Matson and Guskiewicz.

If such an admission is contrary to the university’s policies, UNC could also have to answer to its accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. The commission is also investigating the academic scandal. Its president, Belle Wheelan, said a university can face a sanction for not following its admissions policies, which had been approved by the commission for having academic integrity.

Thomas did hear from the NCAA, through Rick Evrard, a lawyer hired by UNC to handle NCAA matters. The NCAA forwarded her concerns to him, and he wrote her on Feb. 6.

“NCAA Associate Director of Enforcement Kathy Sulentic has forwarded to me information that she received from you regarding possible NCAA rules violations,” Evrard wrote. “The University and the NCAA are currently involved in a joint investigation concerning possible NCAA rules violations and the information you submitted is a part of that investigation.”

He asked her to contact him. She told The N&O she isn’t going to do that. She said she had given the NCAA her documents and was irked to find it had turned the matter over to a lawyer for the university.  NEWS RESEARCHER PEGGY NEAL CONTRIBUTED TO THIS REPORT.

Category: Education, SPIN Blog

Comments (2)

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  1. Tom Hauck says:

    Thanks for an interesting article. The N & O is doing a fine investigative reporting job on this matter.

    Among the items I still wonder about are:
    1) Was the football player a scholarship student and if so, where did he live and who paid for his room and board after graduation in May until he was officially admitted in September? I understand he was practicing football in the preseason, is that correct?
    2) How could a football player be part of the team when he was “in between” or when he was no longer a student yet not registered to be a student again?
    3) Why aren’t the members of the faculty and administration who finally approved this fraud not being asked more questions?

  2. Richard Bunce says:

    THe NFL and NBA need to follow the lead of MLB and NHL and establish real minor league systems instead of using colleges and universities Mens Football and Basketball programs for this purpose. Disband the NCAA and return college athletics to the student centered athletic outlet as it was originally intended. There is much to be appreciated in Division 2 and Division 3 student athletic programs and most of the other Division 1 athletic programs.