|Tuesday, October 7
'I knew that if we could get the truth out, we would win'
By Tom Farrey
Like all whistleblowers who remain in the college town to which they once brought a public spotlight, Jan Kemp endured abuse from fans for revealing that the University of Georgia was using athletes who were functionally illiterate. But lately she has noticed a change in tone, no more obvious than earlier this year on one of her regular "chocolate runs" to the neighborhood grocer.
Just goes to show: If a whistleblower can wait out the storm -- in her case, the better part of two decades -- even the man of the street might come to see that person as a hero.
Long before Richt became head football coach at Georgia in 2001, Kemp, then a remedial studies teacher, made the university think hard about what that program wanted to be known for. When she was there during the Herschel Walker era of the early 1980s, the Bulldogs were a national power fortified with players lacking the academic credentials for college work.
Some of the comments made by officials back then to justify the cheating to keep athletes eligible remain astounding, even today. After Kemp sued the university for firing her, defense attorney Hale Almand described for the jury the typical Georgia football player. "We may not make a university student out of him," he said, "but if we can teach him to read and write, maybe he can work at the post office rather than as a garbage man when he gets through with his athletic career."
Leroy Ervin, Kemp's boss, was secretly taped at a faculty meeting. "I know for a fact that these kids would not be here if it were not for their utility to the institution," he was caught saying in a staff meeting. "They are used as a kind of raw material in the production of some goods to be sold as whatever product, and they get nothing in return."
Vince Dooley, at the time the Bulldogs' coach and athletic director, testified that athletes were admitted with SAT scores of less than 650 out of a possible 1,600. "In order to be, we think, reasonably competitive, we thought that leeway was necessary," he said at the time.
Kemp got her job back. An outraged jury also gave her $2.85 million, later reduced by the judge to $1.1 million.
The money was used to buy her home on a wooded hillside outside Athens, Ga. She put a mat outside the front door that read, "You'd better have a search warrant," words that speak both to her sense of humor and suspicious nature.
Kemp, now 54 and with the wavy brown hair of a younger woman, speaks with a distinctly feminine Georgia accent. But she is no one's pushover. Her insistence in addressing a pattern of grade changes, hyper-helpful tutors and special treatment for athletes ultimately cost then-university president Fred Davison his job.
She told him she hoped the university did give the athletes cars, since they weren't getting an education.
While the Bulldogs went without bowl bans or other penalties, and the Teflon-quality Dooley kept his job, the embarrassing facts of the case emboldened national calls for academic reform. In 1986, the NCAA made it harder for athletes to qualify for a scholarship by adding a minimum SAT score of 700. Graduation rates at Georgia, and elsewhere in college sports, rose.
The tolerance for cheating at Georgia did not abate entirely. Earlier this year, the current president, Michael Adams, lost credibility when his basketball coach, Jim Harrick, was forced out in the wake of allegations of academic fraud involving former player Tony Cole.
But the athletic department's latest troubles are in spite of the efforts of the now-retired Kemp, who after her case continued to highlight what she considered problems in the Georgia program. She sleeps well in her mortgage-free home knowing she did her part in identifying academic corruption.
"I always felt protected by my attorneys and the truth," she says. "I knew that if we could get the truth out, we would win."
Tom Farrey is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.