Calling Audibles XXIV: Truth and Contradictions–UNC’s Sports Scandal and Other Promising Opportunities

In the heat of the NCAA football investigation at UNC when I was writing my Calling Audibles blog series, I met a lot of people and learned a lot of things about big-time sports. In fact, it would be safe to say that what my husband, John, and I experienced during his coaching tenure at UNC has radically changed our lives.

When I heard a few weeks ago about the story brewing at ESPN about Rashad McCants and dummy classes at UNC I was not surprised. I was not surprised for reasons that may surprise you.  istock One Way Sign

While John coached at UNC we did not know players who were taking these dummy classes. And John and the other football coaches on Butch Davis’ staff were serious about making sure players were working hard in their classes. So, my lack of surprise is not because I knew a lot of players who share Rashad’s story. I didn’t.

While John coached at UNC and after he was dismissed we learned more and more from players about how they were sometimes encouraged to take certain classes that conformed to what tutoring services UNC had for athletes. This frustrated players and coaches during John’s tenure at UNC. But, my lack of surprise is not because I knew there were some misguided habits in the academic advising in UNC athletics.

Scratch the surface on many big-time athletic programs and you are going to find players who can tell stories like Rashad’s. Every school says they are doing it the right way. Every school wants to keep their players eligible. And so every school is walking the line between stories like Rashad’s and the stories of most other athletes who take legitimate classes and do legitimate work as a student at their institution.

But my lack of surprise is not because of this well-worn thin line in big-time sports. The strategy of cutting corners when the stakes are high is a well-worn path in human history. This fact of human frailty is not news to any of us. But even this knowledge is not the whence of my lack of surprise.

My lack of surprise about Rashad’s story comes from a much deeper and hopeful place than any of these realities I have listed. My lack of surprise comes from my knowledge of the raw strength of the current that is flowing and will not be stopped toward truth and justice around issues of race, revenue, and equity in sports.

Rashad’s story needs to be heard. Just like Gio Bernard’s does. Gio came out yesterday and expressed his frustration about Rashad’s story being assumed to be that of all athletes who played at UNC. Gio is right, not all players share Rashad’s experience. And Rashad is right, not all players share Gio’s experience.

These contradictory spaces created by very different stories of their experiences from players who have participated in revenue sports in big-time programs like UNC’s need to be heard simultaneously. And not just heard, but truly engaged. These stories need to be a part of the discussion, a part of the discernment of how we address the ills that afflict big-time sports.

People will want to discredit Rashad just like people wanted to discredit Mary Willingham. And maybe their stories do not reflect the experiences of all athletes, but dismissing them out of hand is a missed opportunity. People tend to reject information that does not cohere with our own way of seeing and understanding the world. Blaming individuals is a release valve when the pressure builds like it has been for some time at UNC. And then you throw institutional loyalty, sports fanaticism, and really big money on top of these dynamics and you’ve got a full-fledged vision problem. What is happening at UNC is heartbreaking for many, life-altering for some (and we include our family in both of those categories), but it is a healing opportunity for us all.

The Audible here for all of us is to find the courage to give space to contradictions—and to make space in our soul and in our mind for the fact that these contradictions can both have truth. As a person of faith, I firmly believe that God meets us in the contradictions with a chance to really see anew.

TFJ Book Cover Image

Rashad’s story and Gio’s story give us that contradictory space. They give us a way to kick the habit of trying to search for the next individual to blame and the next head to roll. They give us a way to look beneath the surface into systems and cultures and things we have a hard time seeing. These contradictions tell us there is more to these stories than meets the eye.

And if the outrage we feel is about integrity or about truth or about trust—then its time to get to work on those deep roots of what forms communities and cultures. All of us who love sports need to talk about things like race, equity, and abuse of power along with our conversations about regulation, standards, and community values.

My book, Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports, will be released in just a few weeks through Cascade Books. These contradictory spaces are where this book spends time listening and sharing,revealing and inviting. The conversation unveiled by the contradictory stories and experiences sports give us is getting richer and richer. I hope you will join in if you have not already.

Truth and contradictions just might be the winning combination we need.



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18 responses to “Calling Audibles XXIV: Truth and Contradictions–UNC’s Sports Scandal and Other Promising Opportunities”

  1. Marcia,

    Such an important message. I particularly like this that you said:

    “People tend to reject information that does not cohere with our own way of seeing and understanding the world. Blaming individuals is a release valvue when the pressure builds like it has been for some time at UNC. And then you throw institutional loyalty, sports fanaticism, and really big money on top of these dynamics and you’ve got a full-fledged vision problem. What is happening at UNC is heartbreaking for many, life-altering for some (and we include our family in both of those categories), but it is a healing opportunity for us all.”

    May this struggle at UNC lift the veil on all academic institutions where corners are cut, where human frailty runs amok. I hope the NCAA will do the right thing with all schools while any school under scrutiny takes the time to ask if every student is served, no matter what else they do for the school and where they came from.

    I can’t wait to read your book. Congrats on being so close to publication!

    Lyn

    • Marcia says:

      Thank you for your comment, Lyn. I will welcome your thoughts when you read my book. I know you know the hard word involved in truly meeting students where they are with what they need. That’s not the same as keeping someone eligible. Institutional investment in people can be hard when what the people need doesn’t serve the needs of the institution. How to cultivate a growing community for all people is the challenge we face. I know you are about that same work!
      Peace,
      Marcia

  2. Beverly Rudolph says:

    Marcia–as the Tar Heel born, Tar Heel bred you know me to be, thank you for this perspective. I believe in the Carolina Way, but also believe parts of it got really lost in the big time college sports machine that use our young men and women for its own proliferation. Truth trumps fandome, people programs. Always. Thank you.

    • Marcia says:

      Thank you, Beverly, for reading and for commenting. And thank you for your continued willingness to look at things that are not always what you want to hear. That openness to dissonance and to self-reflection is exactly the collective skill we need to cultivate in big-time sports these days. And it does come down to the sometimes complicated truth that emerges from substantive relationships with real people. May God’s mercy give us more and more space to be in conversation in this mode.
      Peace,
      Marcia

  3. Buddy Collins says:

    My son was recruited at UNC by John Shoop….I remain thankful for his opportunity to play for Coach Davis and his staff…. We shared with you the life altering and heart breaking times. Good luck on the book. If it raises thoughtful discussions on both the promise and purpose of college athletics you will have done the Lord’s work…..

    • Marcia says:

      Dear Buddy,
      So good to hear from you! Yes, we went through these life-altering and heart-breaking times together. We are thankful for you, your family, and especially for David and his commitment through it all. I will look forward to your perspective on my book. You could write one yourself, no doubt! My goal in writing it was to invite people into a conversation about big-time sports. And I wanted to frame that conversation in a way that was unafraid enough to look at the demons and hopeful enough to look for and raise up the redemptive capacity of sports. It comes from the heart, that I know. Our best to the whole Collins family.
      Peace,
      Marcia

  4. Richard Southall says:

    Marcia,

    Thanks for a very thoughtful and insightful commentary. As you and I have discussed, I am convinced more and more the current Collegiate Model is a system in which many fundamentally good people are trapped and forced to walk what you describe as a “well-worn thin line in big-time sports.”

    After researching this space for now over 15 years, I am continually struck by how big-time college sport is – as you mention – representative of issues of class, ethnicity, money and gender. I, too, look forward to your book’s release. Please make sure to get in touch with the editor of the Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics (http://csri-jiia.org/) so they can perform a review.

    My best to both you and John. You are both not just good people, but great ones! I owe you both a great deal.

    Richard

    • Marcia says:

      Dear Richard,

      Thank you for reading and for commenting. John and I are thankful for how all that happened at UNC brought people like you into our lives! We are grateful for all of your good work and for the generous, thoughtful, and diligent ways that you share it. You have taught me a lot.

      You are exactly right–sports hold a mirror up for us about the issues we face in human society. They give us a space to practice at being better at addressing them, too. I know your heart beats with the same hope as mine that we can use the issues sports surfaces as an opportunity to find more life-giving ways to be in community for all people.

      I will definitely get in touch with the editor of the JIIA. Thanks for the suggestion. I pray that all is well for you and your family in your new space. And I pray that we will have the opportunity to talk again soon.

      Peace,
      Marcia

  5. Jeff Grady says:

    Your perspective is refreshing and calming. I’m sure your book will amplify your thoughts on big-time sports and other issues. I do hope that your book also emphasizes personal responsibility. The kind that Gio has and is lacking in Rashad’s life.

    Jeff Grady 66′

    • Marcia says:

      Dear Jeff,

      Thank you for reading and for commenting. I look forward to your thoughts on my book and appreciate your intention to read it. It does, indeed, explore the way personal responsibility and the expectations of it function in big-time sports. And our experience at UNC is an important window into that discussion. Thank you again for your comments.

      Peace,
      Marcia

  6. Jonathan Childres says:

    As always your comments are insightful, thoughtful, and from a perspective that few people have a first hand knowledge. I look forward to reading your book. Best wishes to you, John, and your family.

    • Marcia says:

      So good to hear from you, Jonathan. I pray that all is well with you and your family. I appreciate you reading and commenting. And I look forward to hearing your thoughts on my book. We are thankful for you and for all you do for the community.
      Peace,
      Marcia

  7. Henry Stephens says:

    Thank you for reminding us that we all view life through the perspective of our own values and experiences. Sometimes there is a little bad in what we view as good and sometimes there is a little good in what we view as bad. But most of the time, we need to sort out the good from the bad from a much more muddled situation that is neither mostly good nor mostly bad. Our values and life experiences help us find a course. Yet, we must remember they are our values and experiences and allow that others may be different and just as valid. My view of the situation at Carolina is there is a little bad in what I view as mostly good, however I look at it through Carolina blue lenses. After all I believe God is a Tar Heel. Why else is the sky Carolina blue?

    Thank you again for your interesting article.

    Henry Stephens

    • Marcia says:

      Dear Henry,

      Thank you for reading and for taking time to comment. Your perspective is helpful because it embodies an important self-awareness. Strong communities also have that kind of self-awareness–that recognizes our need for differing perspectives in order for our values and institutions to grow and truly reflect what is most life-giving for all people, not just for some. A community that is not aware of its own limited perspective is not going to give a wide variety of people what they truly need. I am thankful that you are exploring all that is happening with room in your heart and soul for the fact that no one group or person has all the answers.

      I would say your lens are more than simply Carolina blue. They blessedly seem to have a broader spectrum than that!

      Thank you again. I hope you will keep reading and commenting.

      Peace,
      Marcia

  8. John Bartelloni says:

    FWIW: Virginia Tech grad here who played three sports in high school, but none in college.

    Collegiate sports is a dirty business. It was that way when my late father Henry played in the late 1940s and has only worsened since.

    Football, of all sports, is the worst offender. The resources consumed are significant, and the return to the academic community is marginal.

    In November, 2009, I attended the Virginia Tech – Virginia game in Charlottesville.
    Friends and neighbors were screaming at each other as the Hokies finally surged against the overmatched Hoos. “I have had enough of this, ” I thought. “This will be my last game,” and it has been.

    • Marcia says:

      Dear John,

      Thanks for reading and for your comment. I understand how you feel. I understand your decision to not engage in it anymore. I have come close a few times myself.

      I hope you will read my book. I talk about exactly the issues you raise in your comments. Even with all the things we have experienced–including death threats, firings, and betrayal at the hands of good friends, I still believe and experience the redemptive capacity of big-time sports. My book was written from that experience and belief as well as from the experiences of deep distortions that we have had. I truly believe we can find our way into some more life-giving spaces together with some new framing of the problems.

      Thank you again for reading and for commenting. I hope to hear from you again.

      Peace,
      Marcia

  9. Susan Steinberg says:

    Thank you for these wise words, Marcia. I join you in the hope of a new turn–toward hope, justice and truth–in the public and private discourse about these issues.

    With gratitude for your contributions to the conversation~Susan

    • Marcia says:

      Thank you, Susan, for reading and for commenting. I am praying, like you, that there are constructive possibilities in the works in the way we all engage in this conversation. I appreciate your heart for all of the complexity and possibility.
      Peace,
      Marcia


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