Fireworks boomed from the Dean Dome two weeks ago, sparking a high-spirited time at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH). Tar Heel fans had gathered around the home court and all along Franklin Street to watch the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship game. The celebrations following the Tar Heels’ victory have been a stark contrast from last year’s disappointing buzzer-beating loss.
Still, in this heightened moment of success, a spotlight on past transgressions is fighting for center court as competitors—and editors—publicize UNC-CH’s former athletic and academic integrity scandal. News of the “paper courses” originally broke in 2011 when allegations surfaced that UNC-CH was hosting irregular courses for students, including student athletes, in an alleged attempt to keep grade point averages within eligibility requirements (click here to access more information and to locate investigation reports).
Hardy competition evidently brings about the low blows and big accusations that re-stir crisis situations. Tar Heel fans have endured an onslaught of teasing and accusations about “fake classes” since the Final Four weekend began. From a sport crisis communication standpoint, there is much to unpack here. There is also a lot to learn, not the least of which includes use of fanship to help overcome ongoing threats to the university’s reputation by providing students, staff, and faculty with factual information. Survey data collected both before and following the UNC-CH championship game substantiate these claims.
Sport fanship levels are generally lukewarm among undergraduate and graduate students at UNC-CH, according to survey data I collected last November. This year’s championship win offered an opportunity for a comparative analysis of fanship levels and crisis perceptions during a heightened time of attention and success. Just 36 hours after winning the NCAA championship, I had the same sample of UNC-CH students re-take my survey, and preliminary analysis suggests a significant uptick in fanship levels compared to the November results.
Fanship is measured in the survey by asking a battery of questions concerning the individual’s typical interactions with and preferences for integrating sport into his/her daily life. Reported loyalty to UNC-CH sports teams notably increased following the championship. Students also reported an increased awareness of the scandal following the championship, and more than 20% reported being the recipient of a direct comment from another individual concerning the paper courses scandal.
Media reports leading up to the day of the championship game reflect this as well. The New York Times, NPR, and USA Today (to name a few) all mentioned the paper courses as an ongoing academic scandal when reporting about this year’s Final Four and championship games.
Students at UNC-CH are left to exercise a lot of evangelizing and justification tactics in response to this reigniting of the scandal and have expressed how these confrontations and accusations have effected them during the playoffs.
Students shared the following thoughts in the survey:
“The people who I discuss the event with are usually people who dislike UNC in sports. They use it as a defense when we beat them by insulting our academic integrity. The biggest problem I have with the event is that it is an honor to attend this university because of the high academic rigor, but it is difficult to defend it to outsiders when something like this happens.”
“A lot of people outside of the university make comments and jokes about our students and athletes not going to class. I’m not sure how deeply the people who make those comments/jokes actually believe that we don’t go to class, but I think that it shows that the larger society is not aware of the measures UNC has taken to make sure our classes are legitimate. If UNC classes are going to be even harder now that the university has to prove that our classes are real, I would at least like people to acknowledge that. It upsets me that my quality education is often devalued on social media, and at times in larger media settings, because people are still upset about the scandal and aren’t aware of the measures the university has taken to prevent it from happening again.”
The university has taken steps to address the issues reported in the investigation by creating more rigorous academic structures, including improvements in “course integrity,” and a workgroup has been tasked to regularly review the 21 Academic Processes for Student Athletes. Current students, as well as faculty and administration, are still feeling the brunt of these past mistakes. Academic standards have been tightened, as faculty and administrators have worked to restructure and improve written guidelines and documentation processes. But most people do not know these actions have been taken unless they speak to a current student, faculty member, administrator, or athlete who has endured this process.
As another student noted in the survey:
“I always want to defend UNC for the issue, but I never feel like I have enough knowledge on the issue to counter back what people say.”
Sports crisis communicators can learn from this by first recognizing that even in jubilant times, an institution must still face its checkered past. Communicators would do well to equip their base to help handle the ongoing effects of a scandal. Collegiate sport creates community and increases student involvement, and winning collegiate sports teams further inflate these levels. Integration of interpersonal speaking points, even years following a scandal, is suggested for times of heightened attention—especially surrounding sports. Such an open and honest continuation of dialogue will help empower students to aid in reputation repair while cheering on their winning team.
Jennifer Harker is a doctoral student in the School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She studies public relations and sport communication at the praxis of mediated crisis discourse. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jennifer_harker.
Photos by Nathan Klima, a sophomore photojournalism student in the School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Klima serves as a photojournalist for the UNC-CH student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel.