Background image: Fort Point and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Esse quam videri

On many, if not most, issues, I’d rather North Carolina follow its most famous public university’s lead.

The state would be a better place today, for example, if it had elected UNC President Frank Porter Graham to the U.S. Senate in 1950 instead of segregationist Willis Smith (a Dookie, I must point out) and boosting Smith's protégé Jesse Helms.

But in the case of college sports, it would have been much better if UNC had followed the North Carolinians who, in 1893, adopted esse quam videri – Latin for “to be rather than to seem” – as the state’s official motto.

Five years ago a UNC sports scandal broke that ultimately revealed hundreds of athletes’ playing eligibility had been maintained over an 18-year period through fake classes to boost their grades.

It took so long to learn what we now know because the university’s administration – academic and athletic – jointly engaged in an expensive, silly and ultimately futile public relations campaign, including tightly controlled “investigations,” to pin the blame on a rogue department head and his top assistant who coveted their basketball tickets and pitied the classroom ineptitude of the players who brought trophies to Chapel Hill.

The recently published Cheated: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-Time College Sports shows how those entrusted with the integrity of the university focused instead on protecting its undeserved reputation for doing sports the right way.

In the words inscribed behind the desk of comedian Stephen Colbert (a South Carolinian) on The Colbert Report set, this was all about videri quam esse – to seem rather than to be.

Going further than a university-commissioned report by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein, book authors Jay Smith, a UNC history professor, and Mary Willingham, a former athlete tutor whose reputation the university attempted to trash before it paid her $335,000 in severance, lay out how the “student-athlete” masquerade at Chapel Hill served the objectives and fairy-tale dreams of the entire university constituency of faculty, students, alumni and fans (alumni or not).

Dr. Julius Nyang’oro and Debby Crowder in the (then-) Department of African-American Studies didn’t invent no-show classes at Chapel Hill; Smith and Willingham document how they perfected a pre-existing model. As long as no one outside the academic and athletic administrations knew it, those administrations were happy they were doing what they did.

As a former sports writer, none of this is particularly surprising to me. Similar things have happened – and certainly are happening – elsewhere.

But as an alumnus, elsewhere is irrelevant.

I believe in esse quam videri.

And to be what Carolina seemed to be, we Tar Heels should spend some time in the wilderness of seasons not played. Let the grass grow in Kenan Stadium and the intramural teams have the Dean Dome for a few years, not at the command of the NCAA but on our own initiative.

Really lead for a change.

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© 2020 by Jody Meacham