Will Kenan Poster Boy for Academic, Athletic Marriage

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Bradley Bethel’s film Unverified—The Untold Story Behind the UNC Scandal opened Friday night at The Varsity Theatre. Bethel, a former academic counselor at Carolina, quit his job a year ago to produce and direct this film that, he hoped, “would set the record straight” on the sensationalized narrative told for five years now on the UNC “paper class” scandal.

The film is excellent and does exactly what Bethel promised. Interviews with Jay Bilas, the former Duke basketball players now a fixture with ESPN, and Will Blythe, a Chapel Hill native, UNC grad and author, are particularly salient.

You’ll meet academic counselors Beth Bridger and Jaimie Lee, who peel back the curtain to reveal conscientious employees who were trying to help football players whose athletic skills outdistanced their study and research skills. You’ll hear from players from a decade ago and today who are making honest efforts at juggling two immense pressures—staying on track to graduate and competing at the top fraction of one percent in their sport on a national stage.

You’ll see former All-America cornerback Dré Bly make the obvious point, “If you cheated, that’s your fault. Some of these people need to look in the mirror.” Former Chancellor James Moeser for once addresses the “elephant in the room” that’s been there all along, that the AFAM courses got a “pass” on attacks from those who suspected something was amiss because they didn’t want to appear to be making racist attacks. Your jaw will drop over Senior Associate AD John Blanchard’s (below) story that he provided Kenneth Wainstein Johnand his investigative team with proof that key academic staff knew there was something amiss in the “paper class” arena but did nothing about it, but that was not part of Wainstein’s voluminous and damning report.

And it’s great stuff indeed that the very individuals in the media who bulldog after a sensationalized story will not take their medicine and sit down with Bethel to discuss the story.

The film makes the point that athletics are always an easy target and viewed by many as the “toy department” of higher education. Yet passages I have found in researching the early days of Kenan Stadium for my forthcoming book Football In A Forest go back nearly a century in showing how sports and the classroom can work in tandem in forging a productive college experience.

The disciplines of athletics and science were chords that connected young William R. Kenan Jr., the benefactor of the home of Tar Heel football, and Professor Francis Venable, an 1879 masters degree holder in chemistry from the University of Virginia and in 1893 the first recipient of an endowed professorship in Chapel Hill.

Venable was the UNC faculty advisor for campus athletics in the 1890s and subscribed to the Grecian ideal of a healthy mind and healthy body. “I honestly believe one gets a great deal out of college beside book knowledge,” Venable said, “and I am sure it is most beneficial to try athletics.” He believed the athletic field was like a laboratory, where “some of the most forceful teaching is done” and where certain essential qualities were cultivated better than they could be from books—“Quickness of decision, control of temper, concentration of effort toward a definite end, control and direction of the efforts of others, moderation and abstinence, high ideals and honor, honesty and courtesy.”

Will Kenan, pictured above front-row center with the 1893 Tar Heel football team, attended Carolina from 1890-94, played baseball and football and remembered at an older age that his body during his college years had been as “hard as nails,” and he didn’t think he could have withstood the pressures of his working career and incessant travel by train and automobile over rugged roads “were it not for the resistance built up by my years of athletics.”

“The greatest thing a young man learns in college he absorbs without knowing it,” Kenan wrote in his book, Incidents by the Way. “Education is not a static thing. It is not a culture which a man puts on as he would a suit of clothes. It is a dynamic thing. Education should concern itself with the whole personality, not the brain alone.”

Kenan majored in science with a focus on chemistry, physics and math, and he assisted Venable in discovering the process that converted calcium carbide to acetylene and led to the founding of Union Carbide. The development of the mind and body in concert is one of the many nuances that have gotten lost amid five years of having the interlocking NC and stylized Old Well logo dragged across the television screen amid much shrieking and exclamation points.

 

“Football In A Forest” will be published this fall and within some 200 pages, oversized format and full color, will capture the singular spirit and aesthetic grandeur that is Kenan Memorial Stadium. Ideas and memorabilia welcome and appreciated to leepace7@gmail.com.