What an incredible past ten days this was in the ongoing battle between UNC and Dan Kane, the Raleigh News & Observer’s investigative reporter.
To recap, Kane, bloodied but unbowed after the NCAA failed to levy sanctions against UNC in the AFAM scandal, continued his Ahab-like pursuit of his white whale by seeking to stir up controversy between the university and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), the commission which provides UNC’s accreditation. If you recall, SACS investigated UNC and the AFAM department in the wake of the scandal and placed the school on one year of probation, which was served and dismissed long before the NCAA investigation came to an end. But last week Kane took one last stab at his white whale, and the president of SACS delivered a stunning rebuke of Kane and his reporting methods that should just about put an end to Kane’s pursuit of this story.
I’m not going to recite the week’s events; for that you should turn to the exceptional recap by my friend Al Hood over at Tar Heel Blog. Instead, I want to remind folks why this is even a thing in the first place: five years of Pulitzer-worthy investigating and reporting turned up exactly zero pieces of tangible evidence that the AFAM paper classes were created, designed, and implemented to protect athlete eligibility. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. And in the end, Kane’s last, desperate hope was to make the connection that he could never make himself through all that investigative reporting: a one-word characterization in a report delivered to SACS three years before UNC’s appearance before the NCAA Committee on Infractions.
Unlike many UNC partisans, I never begrudged Kane for the fact he was reporting this story. The fact is, the AFAM scandal was an extraordinarily important story and deserved to be investigated. And while I often disagreed with his methods and conclusions, in my own personal interactions with Kane, I found him to be pleasant and earnest. But he would not be the first reporter to be consumed by a story and try to drive it to a pre-determined conclusion rather than follow where the story leads.
Very early on, likely fueled by information from Mary Willingham, Kane seemingly decided the AFAM scandal was an athletic issue rather than an academic one and spent the next five years reporting from that frame of mind. Any conclusion reached by the university that was in contradiction to that viewpoint was reported as “covering up”, “deflecting”, or “not coming clean”, regardless of what the evidence revealed (or didn’t reveal). That dogged determination to stick to the narrative regardless of what people said or investigations showed created an atmosphere of mistrust among UNC partisans, whose objections often were dismissed because they were “fanboys”.
Meanwhile, years of investigation went on without a single piece of evidence produced by Kane as to the purpose or origin of the paper classes. Of course athletes benefited from the paper classes, and no doubt eligibility was saved because of them. But no one could ever prove, neither Kane nor Wainstein nor any of the eight other internal investigations, that the purpose of paper classes was eligibility, which was the linchpin for NCAA action.
Speaking of NCAA action, when it was decided that this was an athletic scandal, the only outcome that meant anything to Kane and the N&O was NCAA sanction. An academic scandal the size and scope of what happened at UNC is significant but far from sexy. But an athletic one, especially one that involves one of the three most important college basketball programs in the country, well that’s gold, Jerry! The university was placed on academic probation by SACS, which never happens to a school like UNC. Nearly a dozen people lost their jobs or retired under duress, but mostly on the academic side. When you’ve gone all in on athletics, the expectation is that someone will be fired or banners will come down, regardless of the importance or severity of the academic sanction.
Kane’s commitment to that outcome was highlighted in the famous catfishing episode where he was duped by a fake Twitter account into exchanging inaccurate information in 2016 around the release of the second NOA. And it was further highlighted last week when he poked around SACS president Belle Wheelan for a quote and then reported it in classic Kane “I’m not saying, I’m just saying…” style that left the purposeful impression that SACS was looking at reopening an investigation into UNC without actually using those words. Kane doubled down on that in an interview on WUNC radio’s The State of Things on Monday, going so far as to say Wheelan indicated the need to “get a handle” on UNC and that he didn’t know if SACS would take action before or after UNC’s accreditation visit in early December.
In the THB post, Hood had the perfect description for what Kane did with the SACS investigation article:
Dr. Wheelan is saying that, In effect, Kane dropped a smoke bomb, asked someone if they saw the smoke, and then wrote the story of a massive fire with a witness confirming the fire happened. The story was completely of his making.
But again, let’s look at why all of this is even necessary: all of Kane’s investigative reporting came up completely empty. Kane described the AFAM mess as “possibly the worst academic scandal of all time” on WUNC and yet could not find a single transcript, email, or other shred of hard evidence to back up this claim. Not one student-athlete out of the thousand or more possibly impacted by this scandal came forward to produce a transcript, email, or other proof of an eligibility scheme (except of course for Rashad McCants, who was quickly dismissed as a kook and even then could not or would not produce his complete transcript).
And in the end, five years of investigative reporting was reduced to one final Hail Mary, prodding UNC’s accreditor to hopefully “compel” (Kane’s term from the WUNC interview) UNC into admitting the AFAM scandal was, in fact, academic fraud, which in turn would open the door for the NCAA sanction that Kane and the paper would have quickly taken credit for having made happen.
When Wheelan smacked down Kane and his efforts to stir the pot between UNC and SACS, she effectively ended the N&O’s pursuit of the story. Not only did five years’ effort not result in a men’s basketball banner coming down, the NCAA let UNC off with no sanction whatsoever, not even for women’s basketball, which was thought to be at least the one program to get hammered. And with Wheelan’s definitive answer that SACS would not be re-opening the case against UNC, that left no further threads to pull. The story is officially dead, and Kane and the paper have nothing to show for it.
Except that they do, if that result mattered to them. Kane’s initial reporting revealed a deeply troubling and frankly embarrassing failure of academic oversight at one of the nation’s most respected universities. UNC was forced to take a deep look at how it did business as an institution and implemented over 70 reforms as a result. Though there was never a perp walk or a banner coming down, there was plenty of carnage. The last seven years of NCAA and AFAM trouble resulted in the loss of a chancellor, athletic director, head football coach, faculty chair, tenured department head, and many more firings and forced retirements.
But when Kane and the N&O went all in on this being an athletic scandal, they became blinded by their desired outcome rather than focusing on the results they did achieve. And Kane’s desperate final attempt to keep the fires of the story lit was so transparently manufactured that the source of one of his quotes felt the need to set the record straight. That is a stunning development, and it seems the paper did not come to Kane’s defense on this one. After the NCAA decision last month, the N&O trotted out stories and editorials decrying the decision and pounding the drums of an academic scandal. This time, however, there were no big guns; only future investigative team colleague Andrew Carter, UNC’s beat reporter, attempted to weakly defend Kane’s reporting and actions. It would seem the N&O has finally raised the white flag.
In the ever-changing media world, investigative reporting remains as important as ever, and holding people and institutions accountable is vital, especially in a time where “fake news” has entered the everyday lexicon. Then again, in a media world driven by clicks, it’s easier than ever to lose sight of rationality when sensationalism sells. The simple fact of the matter is Dan Kane never actually proved his pre-determined outcome as it related to the AFAM scandal and athletic eligibility. His dogged pursuit of UNC ended not with a bang, but with a whimper, and after the incredible repudiation by the president of SACS, the UNC white whale finally swims away dragging Kane behind with the harpoon rope wrapped around his neck.