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The University of Miami's superstar wide receiver Andre Johnson, a big factor in this year's Rose Bowl win, was hammered February 19 by a post-season gang tackle. A group of his fellow students, sitting as the Undergraduate Honor Council, voted to suspend him for two semesters beginning this fall. That effectively quashed Johnson's expected return to the Hurricanes next season when the team defends its national championship. A panel of five delivered the hit because, New Times has learned, last year Johnson was caught cheating on a sociology exam, and then three months later turned in a plagiarized term paper for another sociology course.
But relax, sports fans. Thanks to some creative off-field blocking by UM administrators who handled his appeal, Johnson has wriggled free. The former Pop Warner quarterback for the Opa-locka Optimists and Miami Senior High grad -- now a 6-3, 220-pound speedy sophomore -- will be suspended only for UM's two 25-day summer sessions, allowing him to suit up for the Hurricanes right on schedule.
All isn't smooth on UM's campus, however. Word of the reduced punishment has angered some students and faculty familiar with the Johnson case, many details of which are confidential because state and federal laws forbid colleges and universities from disclosing a student's records without his or her permission. Campus sources are afraid to comment for fear of being punished by the administration or even sued by Johnson. But those constraints don't blunt more general criticism. "Lots of professors are upset at the sway the athletic program has over academic departments," said one tenured professor who teaches at UM's College of Arts and Sciences. "The athletic-department people don't want an even playing field. They want it weighted on their side."
Several members of the student honor council declined to discuss the issue, saying that dean of students William Sandler, who serves as secretary of their council, instructed them to refer all inquiries to him. "I do the best I can," sighed one member when asked if she was frustrated by honor-council sanctions being reduced. "We try to do a good job." Sandler refused comment and did not respond to written questions delivered to his office.
"That's apparently the way it works at UM," said a senior majoring in communications. "When they're in high school, a lot of these black kids get sold this dream and duped into playing sports, and then the university makes a lot of money off them. They're like indentured servants and they get breezed through their classes."
The Johnson controversy is but one example of a conflict that occurs nationwide at schools where guardians of scholastic excellence butt heads with athletic departments that run what are essentially semiprofessional football teams. And UM's football program is indeed formidable. Even people who are not fans of the sport sat up as the Hurricanes crushed the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Rose Bowl this past January 3. By halftime quarterback Ken Dorsey had thrown three touchdown passes, two of them to Johnson, and the score was 34 to 0. The Dorsey-Johnson combo earned the duo a co-MVP award for the game. Johnson ended the day with seven receptions for 199 yards, a UM record for a bowl game. "The Perfect Storm," as some sportswriters dubbed the new national champions, left Nebraska's hopes scattered. The 37-to-14 victory was a glorious end to an undefeated season for the 'Canes.
In early February, though, the celebratory afterglow began to dim. Dean of students Sandler sent Andre Johnson a letter notifying him of the plagiarism charge and instructing him to appear before a five-student honor council.
The saga, which New Times has gleaned from documents and sources familiar with the case, began on September 21 during an exam given by adjunct professor Thomas Petersen in Sociology 373, Courts and Society. Petersen is a retired Miami-Dade Juvenile Court judge, a former chief prosecutor for the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, and the recipient of numerous public-service awards for his work with inner-city youth. He would not comment for this article and referred New Timesto Sandler.
Two students alerted Petersen to the possibility that Andre Johnson and two other football players in the class had shared exam answers. Petersen investigated. "Each student had exactly the same correct and wrong answers," he wrote in a memo to the athletic department. "My attention to these one-hundred-percent correlations (unique to these three students in a class of 58) was initially based on the fact that the three papers were handed in at the same time." Petersen also found that Johnson had signed only five of the ten attendance sheets handed out by that point in the semester. Attendance was significant because the exam questions were based mostly on information Petersen presented in the classroom.
Several days later Petersen confronted the trio. According to his memo, a copy of which was obtained by New Times, they readily confessed and received failing grades on the test. At first the instructor was conciliatory. "I want to work with these students in every way possible," Petersen wrote, "and I certainly do not want to jeopardize their athletic eligibility or their standing within the university if there is an explanation or resolution that is fair to the other students who took the test." He met with Hurricanes football coach Larry Coker, who reportedly told him he would discuss the matter with Johnson individually and with the team as a whole.
Petersen was satisfied with this, at least until Johnson turned in a term paper for Sociology 370, Juvenile Delinquency, in mid-December, just three weeks before the Rose Bowl. The paper was an essay on No Matter How Loud I Shout: A Year in the Life of Juvenile Court, a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes. As he read, Petersen grew suspicious.
Those suspicions prompted him to draft a formal complaint to the Undergraduate Honor Council. New Times obtained a copy of the complaint. "Even a cursory reading of this paper clearly shows it to be a copy of a promotional description of the book," Petersen wrote. "The report was copied without reproducing even the correct punctuation from the original." Petersen met with Johnson, who again confessed. "When I asked him what the source of the material was, he stated he did not know since the report was prepared by his girlfriend," the professor's complaint continued. "I asked him if he knows the meaning of several words contained in the report, specifically “euphemism' and “stigmatizing,' and he stated he did not know the meaning of these words. Given the fact that this is the second instance of cheating by this student in my classes within a period of less than 90 days, I told him that I would refer this to the honor council and that I would ask for a severe penalty since I felt that my leniency in the first instance had obviously been an error."
UM created the Undergraduate Honor Council in 1986 after a group of students blew the whistle on classmates who had purchased copies of a stolen exam. While the honor council, composed of 22 students who hear cases on a rotating basis, maintains a kind of academic moral authority, real power is concentrated in the council's Selection and Appeals Committee. That body, composed of a student representative, the university provost, and the vice president for student affairs (or their designees), not only selects students to serve on the honor council but is free to revise any sanctions the students hand down. Since their inception, the undergraduate councils have issued approximately 275 sanctions, including warnings, reprimands, suspensions, and occasionally expulsions from the university.
In response to Petersen's complaint about Andre Johnson, Sandler convened a five-member panel and designated two other students to investigate the charges. The hearing took place on the evening of February 19 in a conference room at UM's main administration building. An undergraduate student advisor is allowed to attend such meetings to assist the accused, though the advisor is not permitted to address the honor council. Who would a wide receiver bring along to help dazzle his peers? His star quarterback and co-MVP, Ken Dorsey.
First the two student investigators presented their findings. The panel then questioned Johnson, who said he had left the paper to the last minute but did not cite his rigorous football schedule as a factor. He pleaded guilty.
When Petersen spoke, he emphasized his desire to avoid embarrassing the national championship football team, but he said poor academic performance and lax attendance by some athletes created persistent problems for many instructors. Such problems were systemic at UM, the retired judge asserted. The Johnson case was just one egregious example.
According to a source who attended the hearing and requested anonymity, when one student asked Johnson about the earlier cheating incident, dean of students Sandler interrupted to say he didn't think the panel should delve into that. (Sandler would not comment on the account.)
The honor council then turned to the plagiarism charge. After deliberating for more than an hour, the students came down hard on Johnson. They voted to suspend him for two semesters beginning this fall. Not surprisingly Johnson appealed the ruling, and a hearing was scheduled for one week later.
Before long, rumors of the Rose Bowl MVP's suspension spread to a Website chatroom called CanesTime.com. Despite the confidential nature of the honor council's proceedings, the message that began a thread of postings was quite accurate, mentioning the two-semester suspension commencing in the fall. Most of the responses were expressions of disbelief.
"Some guy is posting rumors that Johnson will not be playing next season because he was caught cheating.... I say BS," wrote one football fan.
"I've personally seen worse academic behavior from athletes who have gotten away with it," added another, who was sure the wide receiver would be in uniform for the upcoming season. "You're foolish if you really believe athletes aren't given any special treatment and/or get away with a lot more than would a regular student.... Some of them take tests on plane trips with coaches as proctors!"
Somehow the UM administration became aware of the gossip on CanesTime.com. The response was swift and aggressive. Computer technicians reportedly were deployed to trace the origins of the chatroom messages about Johnson's suspension. Sociology department faculty fell under suspicion. Campus sources say provost Luis Glaser summoned department chairman Dale Chitwood and another professor to his office and angrily notified them of the investigation, warning them about the confidentiality rules governing the release of student records. (Chitwood did not return calls seeking comment.)
In a letter to Chitwood written before the appeals ruling was announced, Thomas Petersen expressed concern that the investigation of professors could obscure important issues at stake in the Johnson case. According to his letter, a copy of which was acquired by New Times, Petersen was also troubled by the negative message a reduced penalty would send to athletes and the Undergraduate Honor Council. "To mitigate the [honor council] disposition in a way that would render Andre Johnson eligible to play football, unless precedent existed for such a mitigation, would certainly be perceived by myself and others as favoritism extended to a student-athlete," Petersen wrote. "I feel at this point that maintaining the integrity of the honor code process is the highest priority."
The appeals committee met on February 26. It consisted of vice president for student affairs Patricia Whitely, vice provost Perri Lee Roberts, and student government president José "Pepi" Diaz. Following procedural rules, Sandler was to provide a written summary of the honor-council hearing, and a member of that panel was there to answer questions. Presumably the committee also questioned Johnson, though that has not been confirmed.
This was the wide receiver's last chance. There was no further appeal. His fate, and his team's prospects for next season, lay with these three people.
Previous UM honor councils and appeals committees had dealt harshly with plagiarism, including full-year suspensions and even expulsion. Comprehensive information, however, was not made available to New Times; the university provided only limited records from 2001. Those records included five plagiarism cases in which one student was suspended for both the fall and spring semesters and three barred from the fall semester. One student was suspended for the summer.
After deliberating late into the night, Whitely, Roberts, and Diaz delivered their verdict. Andre Johnson would play football next season.
His reduced penalty: no summer school. (It is not known if Johnson had even planned to attend UM's two short summer sessions.) In addition the panel decided the star athlete must complete workshops on "values education" and "proper [research] citation" when he returns to school this fall.
The next day a group of Johnson's teammates were cagey about the case. A dozen of them sat on benches along a campus sidewalk. "Suspended for what?" bluffed one.
"They already had the hearing," contradicted another.
"Are you with the KKK?" snarled linebacker Carl Walker, a 6-3, 199-pound linebacker from Jacksonville. "You're not supposed to be walking around here talking to football players," he scolded. "The truth stays with us."
When New Times contacted Tomás Jimenez, UM's director of athletic academic services, he denied that the honor council had ever suspended the wide receiver. "It's just a rumor," he insisted. "No validity to it whatsoever. But let me get you down to the sports-information department."
Doug Walker, an athletic-department spokesman, said no one there could comment on the case or any issues related to it. As of press time, Johnson had not responded to an interview request, but he did show up for the first day of spring practice this past Monday. Coach Coker was impressed. "Johnson looked especially good," he told the Miami Herald at the conclusion of practice.
"I think these athletes are being used in the most awful way," lamented the tenured professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. "Ultimately these athletes are not dumb. If they can learn a 450-page playbook, they can certainly learn Biology 101. But they are encouraged to stay away from professors who would really challenge them academically."
The senior communications student added that most college football players don't end up as professional athletes. "What happens when their sports careers are over and they don't have an education?" he asked. "They end up with a bum knee, working at a car dealership."