|Tuesday, October 7
'It transformed my whole life'
By Tom Farrey
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- She is at the University of Denver now, where the air is thinner.
But she is able to breathe easier. Started to the day she left Knoxville.
She concludes the letter, "It will take time, though, for me to forgive the university; no faculty member should ever find her attempts to do her job met with institutional threats and public attacks on her character."
Bensel-Meyers is not missed by those closest to the Volunteer football program. For the better part of a decade, the tenured English professor lodged concerns about institutional misconduct by the academic services unit devoted to Tennessee athletes. Her persistent efforts -- critics might call it a campaign -- brought public scrutiny to Rocky Top in the wake of the team's 1998 national championship.
Her awareness of the issues came from her being director of composition, a role that funneled all allegations of plagiarism in the English department to her desk for review. Since English 101 and 102 are mandatory for all students, she was ideally positioned to witness the writing skills of some of the recruited athletes.
She was astounded not so much by their deficiencies -- the daughter of a poor chicken farmer from Oregon, she believes the educationally underprivileged can learn to do college-level work -- but how much assistance they seemed to be getting from athletic department tutors. For instance, one starter on the football team turned in a polished paper on the topic of Madonna, the pop icon. When a skeptical teacher asked him to summarize the paper in class, a tactic used to root out plagiarism, the following is what the player wrote on a sheet of lined paper:
The university response was a jumble. Tennessee suspended four players during the investigation, but later cleared them, saying no NCAA rules were broken. An internal review found athletes, on average, received more grade changes than other students, but university leaders expressed little concern. New rules were enacted to prevent tutors from typing papers, and oversight of the tutors shifted to the provost's office. But Bensel-Meyers considered the latter change cosmetic, since the athletic department still paid the bills.
"Linda helped us focus on changes that needed to be made," said Anne Mayhew, vice provost for academic affairs and NCAA faculty athletic representative at Tennessee.
At the time, however, then-university president Wade Gilley criticized Bensel-Meyers. Her e-mail inbox filled with vague threats and messages of hate. Once-friendly faculty members treated her as a pariah. She was replaced as director of composition and her office was relocated, from a window space overlooking Neyland Stadium to the basement. At home, her marriage, already shaky, crumbled under the pressure.
One psychologist, she says, told her she developed symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder.
"It transformed my whole life," Bensel-Meyers says of blowing the whistle. "Early on I came up with a metaphor for it -- it's like being on the edge of a cliff, blind-folded while turning cartwheels. Hoping I'll land on my feet every day. Because there have been things that have happened that I just couldn't anticipate."
Friends urged her to go easier on herself, slip into the shadows of the scandal. Apply for other jobs around the country. She declined, for a while. Certain that athletes were being denied the education that lifted her out of a dusty chicken farm, she took it as her duty to continue to press the issue, her scope eventually broadening to other campuses. Her passion eventually led to her becoming director of the Drake Group, an internationally honored band of faculty members that agitates for the reform of college sports.
The Drake Group has also become a de facto support group for other whistleblowers -- a label, incidentally, Bensel-Meyers does not prefer to stamp herself with.
"That term (suggests) someone is doing something that most people would not do," she says. "I have to believe that most people who had access to the information that I had access to would do the same thing."
Tom Farrey is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.