|Tuesday, October 7
Updated: October 8, 1:57 PM ET
'Just pay them to be athletes and forget about the rest'
By Tom Farrey
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The callers to sports talk radio here have a name for Norma McGill.
"Norma the mental freak," says Ian Fitzsimmons, a host at WBNS radio, the official station of Ohio State Buckeye football. "Is that fair? Absolutely not. But they think she has an ax to grind against Ohio State and they do not like her at all."
The New York Times didn't call her, looking to take down the national champions. She called the New York Times -- as well as the Chicago Tribune and USA Today, she says -- to share her outrage over what she considered special academic accommodations given to athletes.
She was a teaching assistant in the African American and African Studies department, where running back Maurice Clarett was taking a class last season. She thought it odd when Clarett walked out of his mid-term exam, then was allowed by professor Paulette Pierce to re-take the test orally. Clarett was allowed to take an oral final as well. "He couldn't read very well," McGill says.
She and Pierce met with Clarett to discuss his classroom struggles. That's when, McGill says, he told them of academic misconduct by other athletes with access to tutors. She wanted someone to investigate the claims, and force the school to review the way it educates its revenue-producing athletes, whose priorities while on scholarship are often dictated by the year-round demands of their sport.
"If you're going to have students who are just athletes, then don't call them student-athletes," McGill says. "Don't make them go to class and school. Just pay them to be athletes and forget about the rest."
Like McGill, Clarett has a strong independent streak. At a Fiesta Bowl press conference last December, he criticized societal indifference to the homeless. He could not have known that a few months later, the woman who would raise concerns about his education, McGill, would also become homeless. Feeling hostility from the chair of her department, Kenneth Goings, who later dismissed her claims of academic misconduct due to "her history of psychiatric problems," and anticipating the wrath of Buckeye fans, she fled to Lexington, Ky., just north of the rural town where she grew up.
McGill says she has no money. An eccentric loner who said she has wrestled with clinical depression in the past, she claims few friends. And she didn't want to bring her family into the media circus, so for a while, she slept in an abandoned, 1950s-era car parked near her church, Shiloh Baptist. She subsequently rented a room from someone in the neighborhood, and started looking for a job.
Her search did not last long. McGill, 43, is now in a Lexington jail, after being arrested Sept. 7 and charged with assault, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, according to a Fayette County (Ky.) court clerk. Police were called to Shiloh Baptist and found McGill being escorted from the building. The police report said she "used offensive coarse language toward her escorts and the church. When the subject was taken into custody for disorderly conduct, she attempted to fight the officer."
The officer "took her to the ground, where she bit his thumb. She stopped resisting and was finally cuffed," the report said.
McGill later was cited for harassment after a Lexington woman complained that her daughter was verbally abused in a church bathroom by McGill. Fayette County District Court has ordered a psychiatric evaluation of McGill, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges and is scheduled to appear in court Oct. 8, according to the clerk.
Before her incarceration, she expressed hope of one day going to law school, to learn how to protect future whistleblowers. After all, shining a light on abuse can be intimidating. Although the publicity arms of athletic departments annually release the names of athletes who achieve good grades -- "Academic All-Big Ten" means a player holds GPA of at least 3.0 -- Ohio State spokeswoman Elizabeth Conlisk contends McGill violated federal student privacy law when she revealed the academic troubles of Clarett.
As for Goings' public comment about the mental health of McGill, who was a graduate student at the time, Conlisk argues Ohio State did not violate privacy law in that instance. Double standard? No, she insists, because Goings' attack was based on "rumors," not student records.
Tom Farrey is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.