UNC Grad School Pushed to Take Players

Dan Kane, Charlotte Observer, March 1, 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.

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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.

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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.

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