CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Bradley Bethel’s “Unverified,” a documentary film that dives into the University of North Carolina’s longstanding academic scandal, offers a compelling viewpoint into the complex ordeal that has too often been reduced to a black-and-white storyline.
Bethel rose in popularity during the scandal’s unearthing due to his detailed examinations and retorts of media reports and a willingness to dig into academic data and provide nuanced explanations to the public. The former UNC learning specialist has taken a different approach in his first documentary, focusing instead on humanizing individuals that most only know by name.
The strength of the film lies in its ability to give a voice to the affected parties of the academic fallout. Beth Bridger and Jaimie Lee, both former academic counselors within the Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes, serve as the motivation for Bethel’s crusade to address media sensationalism while seeking accountability beyond lower-level employees.
His search highlights the media's hypocrisy in demanding transparency while insulating itself from criticism regarding irresponsible reporting, as well as the university's efforts to minimize and contain the scandal's damage. The latter point includes harsh criticism of the Wainstein Report, which, according to Bethel, provided the UNC administration an avenue to scapegoat various individuals intent only on doing their jobs of helping student-athletes.
“University leaders seemed content to allow those associated with athletics to take the blame, and the news media was obviously quick to propagate that narrative,” Bethel says in the film.
The documentary serves not as a fiery takedown of the media or UNC detractors, but rather as a unique perspective to understand how ASPSA counselors, administrators, coaches and student-athletes viewed the AFAM paper classes, and how an academia culture resistant to criticism, particularly as it relates to the manner in which a faculty member teaches his or her classes, played a role in the scandal spanning decades.
John Blanchard, a former senior associate athletic director who supervised the academic support program, offers keen insight into both the Wainstein Report investigation interviews and the university’s response to media reports.
The film is not without its faults. The documentary begins its story in 2011, a year after former ASPSA tutor Jennifer Wiley piqued the media’s interest in the relationship between athletics and the academic support program, a key detail in determining the origins of the media narrative.
Bethel’s interactions with Bridger and Lee appear more as friendly conversations around a kitchen table than a hard-hitting interview setting, and while that allows for illuminating personal reflections, there is no attempt at resolving noteworthy specifics, such as the matter of the infamous alleged slide presentation to the football coaching staff in 2009.
Even so, Bethel excels in turning names on a random document into flesh and bone, providing an additional layer of complexity into a scandal that was never as clear-cut as some suggested.