Thad's Thoughts

Weather aside, the second week of April is usually not the most pleasant week of the year, at least for those of us who have to file tax returns. In 2002, however, it has been an absolute nightmare for all those who care about North Carolina basketball and its future.

For four decades, the ethical core of the basketball program Dean Smith built could be neatly summarized in one key maxim: Treating people -- and in particular players -- with respect, even while making demands on them to do their best and become better, even while keeping it quite clear who was in charge.

It is thus a very serious charge indeed that the ethical core of Matt Doherty's program has been called into question in the last week, and in the most public possible manner. Adam Boone, a model all-around student-athlete expected to play a substantial role on the court and a leadership role off it over the next two years, announced plans to transfer; his father told reporters that a lack of respect in the program was the core of the reason why. Boone himself confirmed those comments the following day.

It was also reported that two of Doherty's own recruits, Jawad Williams and Melvin Scott, recently held a meeting with Matt Doherty requesting him to "alter his approach" to coaching. Williams said it is still possible he will leave if he is dissatisfied, and Jackie Manuel has acknowledged seriously considering leaving the program.

The coup de grace, arguably, however, was graduating senior Jason Capel's comments that he agreed with Louis Boone that there is a respect problem in the program, and that things simply have to change.

I'm not sure there's a whole lot constructive to be said after a week like that one, at least on the part of outside observers, other than to express regret and serious concern about this state of affairs. I don't pretend to be directly privy to "what's going on," or to have any qualifications for claiming either that things are not as bad as they seem or that the situation is even worse than the general public knows.

I do know that Carolina basketball's reputation has taken an unprecedented hit in the last week, however, and I do not take the view that the kinds of concerns raised by the players and their representatives in the last week are peripheral to the "more important" matter of wins and losses. Not everyone will agree with those two assessments, but probably few would regard them as especially controversial at this point.

But I would go further still and say that, unpleasant as it is, players and ex-players do have a right to express their feelings–in public if necessary–and that it is not unreasonably selfish of them to do so.

I find it interesting, therefore, that much message board ire seems to be aimed in particular at Jason Capel and the fact that he made statements last week that are widely regarded as "damaging to the program," and were, minimally, certainly damaging to the reputation of Matt Doherty and his efforts.

A natural question is, why would Capel say such things (even if he thought them)? After all, Capel is out of Chapel Hill in another few weeks; and as a marginal NBA prospect, we might think he would be especially eager to stay in Doherty's good graces for help catching NBA teams' attention (or in negotiating a USBL contract). Doherty is someone who can help Capel for years to come. Why even risk that relationship in the slightest way?

To me, "spiting Doherty" is not an adequate explanation for why Capel would take that risk so publically. What makes a lot more sense to me is Capel's own explanation for his words: he is legitimately concerned about his teammates and the experiences they have in the years to come.

When Adam Boone or his father says there is a problem, it can be dismissed as just transfer sour grapes (although I think that's probably a mistake in this case). When freshmen voice concerns with a coach's methods, well, they're freshmen (and still recovering from 20 losses to boot). When a senior who has just been named permanent team co-captain, team MVP, was the undisputed team leader, and who has every reason to remain in his coach's good graces speaks out in much the same terms, I find it a lot harder to dismiss.

Indeed, I find it a lot more plausible that Capel is speaking out precisely because he wants to be a good teammate, and feels that going public is necessary at this point to communicate the depth of his concerns and his teammates' concerns. I tend to think that Capel should not be vilified, but in fact praised for his courage and being willing to stick his own neck out a little when he has little to gain from it.

One of the most remarkable features of Dean Smith's vaunted relationships with players and ex-players was that the mutual respect expressed on both ends was uncoerced. Everyone knew that players under Smith became personally unhappy from time to time, and certainly it was easier to handle such problems in a discreet fashion in the pre-Internet era. But no one has ever claimed that Smith's players felt they were personally not respected by the coach, but held back from saying so because it would "hurt the program."

That's why I'm glad, not angry, that Capel (and the others) spoke out if that is how they feel, and if they feel that voicing their concerns through existing, non-public channels has failed. The "interests of the program" is a construct for fans and coaches. Players don't have an obligation to prioritize that abstract concept over their own well-being in college, or that of their teammates. And for Carolina players, the very heart of what "Carolina" has meant through the years has been the quality of their lived experience as players and then ex-players -- not the things fans usually like to think about (like banners in the rafters or streaks or numbers in a record book). While coaches certainly have a prerogative to ask players to work hard, players also have a reasonable expectation that they are going to be treated respectfully and as ends in themselves, not simply as instruments to some larger purpose.

Telling players who are unhappy to simply shut up and get with the program, or labeling them as ingrates, or anything else, is not the mark of a healthy climate. This is Chapel Hill we're talking about, not Bloomington circa 1985-1999, where anyone who spoke out was immediately scapegoated and labeled a "weak kid" or an enemy of the program.

And if there is any silver lining to come out of last week, it is that Matt Doherty has not taken that harsh view of the players who voiced their concerns, but has acknowledged that dialogue is valuable and expressed the desire to learn from the past and improve.

Whether or not enough "changes" can take place to keep the unhappy players on board and improve the climate is obviously an open question. What is clear is that a situation where a lot players are unhappy with their environment and their experience (and I don't just mean losing, although that is part of it in this case) is not sustainable for very long.

In my mind, it's not desirable either, even if I thought you could win 879 games in 36 years operating in such a climate. (I don't.) I'm simply not interested in a Carolina basketball program that wins games but treats players poorly. Neither are very many of the nation's most talented basketball players, either in Chapel Hill or in high schools around the country.

Nor, I believe and hope, is Matt Doherty himself interested in that kind of program. My guess is that Doherty was genuinely stung by Louis Boone's comments, that he does not want to have the reputation of running a "disrespectful" program, and that he and the players will commit to taking earnest steps to improve communication and improve the climate in the months and season to come. Obviously, the players who have raised these issues wouldn't even have bothered if they thought there was no hope of very substantial improvements and growth on both ends of the relationship, or if they did not trust their coach to make a best-faith effort to respond to their concerns.

I simply do not know whether a few changes in process or methods would do that trick, or if a more fundamental rethinking of approach is needed on the coaching staff's part. What I don't doubt after this week, is Jason Capel's solemn observation: "There has to be change....There's no choice."


Guest columnist Thad Williamson is author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Mean So Much To So Many, available at www.dollarsandsense.org/carolinabook.html or at amazon.com. You can email Thad at thad@uncbasketball.com.

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