Unverified: The Untold Story Behind the UNC Scandal: Sore Loser, by Alexander Miller
Former UNC learning specialist Bradley Bethel quit his job to direct, write, produce and act as the leading commentator/narrator for his documentary, Unverified: The Untold Story Behind the UNC Scandal. In 2011 UNC was under major media scrutiny regarding their Paper Classes; a “shadow curriculum” basically classes that didn’t require any attendance, and minimal work. These were in violation of the NCAA regulations, deemed as academic fraud and as a result, academic counselors Jamie Lee and Beth Bridger close colleagues of Bethel received a large brunt of the scandal, and lost their positions at the university, tarnishing their careers. The media coverage Bethel deems as unfair and biased and that coverage of the events was sensationalized to provide the public with a juicy story.
While the idea of taking on the media because of unfair and unjust treatment sounds like an alluring prospect, perhaps Unverified would be a defiant rebel yell against the bastardization of commercial news or a revealing expose of an academic infrastructure that dispatched a pair of otherwise innocent staff members in order to protect a multi-million dollar generating facet based on UNC’s athletics? Well, for the most part, Bethel’s film didn’t explore either; instead of pursuing a more compelling avenue Bethel’s film (or “narrative”, a word that is beaten to death throughout) is repeatedly trumpeted as a personal conquest.
While the crux of his incentive is devoted to clearing the names of his colleagues, Lee and Bridger, they have precious little screen time and their story is largely obscured by a self-serving, whiny rabble rouser. On paper, Bethel’s motivations and due diligence in generating the project are admirable and even impressive; acting as producer, director, writer, and driving force behind each interview but his narration and self-indulgent screen presence is forcefully off-putting. In the more successful moments of the film, when Bridger and Lee are openly discussing the scandal and the termination of their employment, you can’t help but feel sympathy for both of these people.
A simple, and relatable human emotion is solicited by their plight but the unreliable focus of Unverified veers from a clunky agenda replete with voiceovers and broad analogies recounting an encounter with a bully to a fitting but obvious Mark Twain quote. Interviews consist mainly of UNC staff and athletes, while many of Bethel’s targets who initiated the scandal declined to be interviewed. One of three central revelatory moments includes footage from former player Deunta Williams whose achievements (high school coach, restaurant owner) were cleverly edited down into “fast food worker” on ESPN’s Outside the Lines.
In another revealing sequence, Bethel approaches UNC’s journalism expert Adam Hochberg in reply to his repetitive inquiries into the media scandal. Hochberg candidly responded by saying, “journalists didn’t end your friends’ careers.” Bethel takes this in stride and spurns him to take on more centrifugal cogs in the scandal like Kenneth Wainstein, whose report broke open the academic fraud, but any chance this film has to a dramatic crescendo is undercut by most people’s refusal to participate in the documentary. ESPN analyst Jay Bilas offers some credible insight, and is likely the biggest draw in the film, as far as the NCAA policies elaborating on the scandal being an athletic or academic responsibility. Another notable moment (also the most comedic when, what assume is Adam Hochberg’s phone rings on vibrate) was also the most stupefying for me as I thought to myself “it took an interview with a UNC’s journalism expert get that?”, while we’re on the subject of missing the point but how surprised can he be that the media sensationalized the academic fraud at UNC?
By the halfway point, I was tired of seeing Bethel’s seemingly never-ending onslaught of reaction shots, staged scenes and redundant narration. Almost every cut in the interviews is Bethel smirking and nodding; the kind of mugging that immediately overstays its welcome to the viewer, particularly because it was never warranted in the first place. Technically, Unverified would be a certifiable feature but the insistence of establishing shots with Bethel pensively staring at monitors, television screens, and one comically uninspired moment showing our “hero” authoritatively leering at the News & Observer building made me chuckle. For all the pontificating about righting wrongs, and “setting the record straight” for his colleagues, the headline subject of Bradley Bethel’s documentary is, well Bradley Bethel. Unverified: The Untold Story Behind the UNC Scandal is a misguided documentary that sheds too little light on too large a topic under the guise of good intentions. If you’re steeped in the world of college sports or have a connection to UNC, this film might engage your peripheral interest but my experience was merely superficially engaging.