Thad: Honest Shame

Shame is a moral emotion. To feel shame is to experience regret at failing to act according to standards you affirm are important. Shame is especially intense when the standards one has violated are constitutive, not incidental, to one’s identity.

Feeling shame is extremely unpleasant, one of the most painful emotions. It’s also the sign of a morally engaged human being, and because all human beings are flawed, no morally engaged person will go through their life without feeling shame. There is a reason why the term “shameless” is not a nice description of someone. To be shameless is to lack a moral compass altogether.

College sports produce collective emotions. That’s one of the main reasons they are so popular and attract such committed, loyal followers.

The collective emotion Tar Heel fans are feeling this week is shame. And while what happened at the University of North Carolina over a stunningly prolonged period was not okay, it is okay to feel and express shame that it happened.

There are many dimensions of this pain. It’s painful that some student-athletes didn’t get the education they were promised with their scholarship. It’s painful that some Tar Heel athletes apparently needed a paper class to remain eligible. It’s painful that beloved long-time members of the Carolina family took actions that violated the most basic standards of an academic institution.

Most of all, it’s painful that deans and chancellors came and went for decades without anyone detecting such a massive departure from acceptable academic practices. What the Wainstein Report illustrated was at the most basic level a profound institutional failure.

Yet institutions are complex entities. Because Carolina failed in a way that was central to its affirmed public identity, the pain is palpable, and rightly so. But this failure should not be allowed to diminish appreciation for all the positive experiences and accomplishments of the University of North Carolina. No one who loves the university should have any less reason to love it after the revelations of this week.

Specifically, there will be some who will claim the paper class issue tarnishes the legacy of Dean Smith, or who will leap to the (completely unsupported) assumption he knew what was going on. Anyone who thinks that not only underestimates Smith’s integrity, but also fails to comprehend Smith’s deeply competitive nature; for Smith, the very idea of cheating was repugnant because he liked the challenge of winning within the rules.

It is undoubtedly true that we now know that Carolina sports—including football and men’s and women’s basketball—did not always live up to its own professed standards. This does not mean that those who professed the standards were insincere or hypocritical.

Indeed, in an ironic way it’s a measure of the success of Dean Smith and William Friday (among others) that university leadership over the past several years responded first with genuine shock to the academic problems and then a determination to get to the bottom of it, no matter where the evidence led. This did not happen all at once, but it did happen. Chancellor Carol Folt deserves great credit for overcoming instinctive institutional defensiveness, commissioning the Wainstein Report, and committing to be open about the problems and proactive about implementing reforms aimed at assuring such widespread violation never happens again.

UNC is still an institution that aspires to greatness, and specifically to the notion that academic accomplishment and high-level athletic accomplishment can go hand in hand. Some of the problems at Carolina stem from the systemic tension between those two goals, when student-athletes are brought to campus without the requisite academic preparation. That’s a tension felt at almost every school in the country that plays big-time sports, and indeed is intrinsic to the current model of college sports.

Maybe that model needs adjustment (or more), but that’s a discussion for another day. The fact is almost no one would endorse the idea that the best way to handle that tension is to create bogus classes that give students unearned grades, and then conceal the practice.

National sportswriters and editorialists, and of course rival fans, will enjoy a field day at Carolina’s expense, and speculation is rife over possible NCAA consequences from the new report.

None of that is as important or significant right now as supporting the university leadership and community in this process of acknowledging the truth, absorbing it, correcting course, and moving on, sobered and humbled but rededicated to realizing the institution’s core values and living up to the challenging state motto “Esse Quam Videri.”

There’s no shame in friends of the University of North Carolina feeling shame this week. In fact, that’s just what a Tar Heel born or bred probably should feel. It’s honest shame, not disengaged cynicism, that will assure that the values the university stands for, and for which it is so deeply loved, are fully restored in the days and years to come.

Thad Williamson has been publishing his columns at Inside Carolina since 1995. He's an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.

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