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Degree of contention

Adams didn't graduate, says BC altered his transcript

ATLANTA -- Burnett Adams figured it was time to get on with his life. The former Boston College basketball player had always regretted not completing his degree when he left BC in 1983. He decided to go back to school 10 months ago.

"What are you talking about?" his college friend Darren Walton said, when Adams informed him of his plans. "You already graduated. I read about it in the paper."

What Walton had seen was a correction to a March 1999 Globe story on Boston College basketball, which chastised the school for its poor graduation rate among African-Americans. The correction read, "It was misstated that in 1986 it had been upwards of a decade since any African-American player had graduated from Boston College. Michael Adams, Dominic Pressley, Stu Primus, Terrence Talley, and Burnett Adams -- all African-American players -- graduated from BC in 1985 and 1986."

"I found that very strange," Adams said. "I think I would know if I graduated. And I was quite sure I hadn't."

Adams e-mailed Reid Oslin, the former sports information director, to find out who had submitted the correction, and how he could go about completing his degree. Oslin referred him to Ferna Phillips, the director of Learning Resources for Student-Athletes , who retrieved his transcript.

According to Adams, Phillips told him he had "a lot of work to do," and questioned him about a series of failed grades he received while enrolled in the Evening College from 1983-86.

Yet Adams contends he never enrolled in the Evening College. In fact, he insists, he was pursuing his professional basketball career and playing for a team in Portugal in the fall of 1986, when BC's records show him taking two courses.

"Burnett is right," confirmed Lou Ferrara, a conduit to international clubs who funneled American talent overseas. "I got him a job in Ovar, Portugal. He left in August of '86. He was out of the country."

Adams's transcript shows him enrolled in two classes in the fall of 1986: Media Workshop I and R & R in Communications. He received failing grades for both.

"It's hard to pass a course when you didn't even know you were taking it," Adams said. "Ferna was shocked at what I told her. She suggested I call Father [James] Woods [dean of the Evening College]. I called and talked to his secretary. She said she'd get back to me. I never heard anything.

"Ferna was the only one who seemed genuinely concerned. I guess Father Woods just figured I'd go away. But I won't.

"Something fraudulent has happened here. I want to know why."

Phillips did not return calls from the Globe, but Woods rejected the notion that Adams's transcripts were altered, or that someone else registered him for classes without his knowledge.

"I don't put any value in what he's saying," Woods said. "It's not a possibility. The only way he would be registered is if he came in here himself and did so.

"We didn't make him up. Period."

Questions arise
According to Adams's official transcript, he took Formal Speaking in Public, Introduction to Radio, and Introduction to Public Relations in the fall of 1983. He received a C-minus for Formal Speaking and failing grades for the other two classes.

"I'd like to know how I got a C-minus in a class I never set foot in," Adams said.

Adams's transcript states he withdrew from Critical Reading and Writing and Effect Oral Communication in the fall of 1984, and received F's in Public Relations and Films and Television. He maintains he did not sign up for any of the courses, either in 1983 or '84.

Athletic director Gene DeFilippo said he began investigating Adams's claims after receiving a phone call from him last month. He said records that would have revealed who signed the registration forms were destroyed as a matter of school policy because of the time elapsed.

"I'd like to help Burnett," DeFilippo said. "If he wants to graduate from Boston College, we're going to help him find a way to do that."

Asked if he was troubled by assertions by Adams that someone may have tampered with his transcript, DeFilippo answered, "I'm at a disadvantage because I wasn't here when it transpired. We've looked into it the best we can, but without the records, it's hard to make a determination."

The Globe contacted the other players who were listed in the correction as college graduates. Michael Adams said he completed his degree on time, "and I have the paper to prove it." Talley and Primus also confirmed they graduated. Pressley died of cancer in 1997.

Primus said when he entered The Heights in the fall of 1981, the basketball team was "unsettled," reeling from a point-shaving scandal and poor academic performances.

"When we first got there, coach [Tom] Davis told us, 'You guys are going to study hall, and you are going to get good grades. You aren't going to be like these other guys,' " said Primus. "The upperclassmen did their own thing. He had given up on them.

"Supposedly, they were going to night school, but I don't know how. We had games at night. We had practice at night. On the other nights, we were at study hall, which was supposedly required, but none of the older kids came. It seemed weird, but we were freshmen. We did what we were told."

Burnett Adams said neither Davis nor Gary Williams, who succeeded Davis, reviewed his academic record. He found out after the fact, he said, that courses Davis encouraged him to take did not count toward his degree.

"I've been used by Boston College enough," Adams said. "I'm old enough and secure enough to acknowledge the mistakes I've made. I should have kept up my grades. But I'm not letting them use me again, just to make themselves look better by saying their black students were in school."

Racial difficulties
Burnett Adams, recruited out of Elizabeth, N.J., was convinced he was going to be an NBA player. At 6 feet 6 inches, he could touch the top of the backboard.

"He was terrific for us," recalled former BC assistant Kevin Mackey. "He was an undersized shot blocker in a league of inside players. But he was a little small to be an NBA prospect."

In Adams's first semester, he earned a grade-point average of 2.0.

But, he said, academics were not a priority on the basketball team.

"They used to send us to study hall," said Adams. "[Former assistant] Jack McMahon was in charge. It was a joke. We just sat around and talked."

Talley said the mandatory study halls were nothing more than social gatherings. He did most of his studying, he said, in his dormitory or at the library.

"They had us in a room in Roberts Center where they had old textbooks you could use," Talley said. "They had old term papers and essays and exams so guys would know what was on the tests."

Davis, who has retired from coaching, did not return requests for an interview through Drake University, where his son succeeded him as head coach.

Asked about the exams and prewritten essays, Mackey said, "I don't know anything about that."

Adams claims the coaching staff instructed him on which easy courses he should take and encouraged him to major in sociology, considered an easier major with a lighter class load.

Mackey said he doesn't recall Adams being in trouble academically.

"I remember him as an OK student," Mackey recalled. "We had other kids that had worse academic problems."

Mackey acknowledged there were overzealous professors on campus who would occasionally give players special treatment.

"Some professors were big fans," Mackey said. "They loved getting close to it. I'm sure there was some [impropriety] at times."

Adams said he and an unnamed teammate agreed to help a professor move his furniture in exchange for changing a failing grade to a C. Another professor, he said, complimented him on the previous weekend's game and upped his score on a test.

Talley said professors clamored to travel with the team during the NCAA Tournament.

"They'd come up to me and say, 'Get me on one of those trips. It will help your grade,' " Talley recalled. "They wanted me to tell the coaches I needed them there."

While such perks were available across the board for student-athletes, Primus said, the experience of being an African-American on campus was often isolating.

"It was difficult," Primus said. "You felt unwelcome. We pretty much kept to ourselves."

Talley recalled one practice when Williams, who started five African-American players, came into the gym on the verge of tears.

"He told us, 'There are people who don't want you here,' " Talley said.

Campus police officer Bobby Hill was the lone African-American on the force in the early 1980s. He tried to run interference for the black athletes, who were often singled out unfairly, he said. "Back then, if you were African-American, it was one mistake and you were out," he said.

But not so, say the former basketball players, for other athletes.

In September 1984, football fullback Jim Browne was arrested for possession of 23 grams of cocaine. Coach Jack Bicknell suspended him for two games, but Browne was allowed to rejoin the team after pleading guilty to cocaine possession in Brighton District Court.

"All the African-American athletes on campus -- not just the basketball players -- said the same thing," Primus said. "If he was black, he'd be gone."

Support fell short
Burnett Adams's record off the court was spotless, but his academic standing was an issue from the start. He failed three classes in his second semester, and in the fall of 1980 had two C's, two D's, and an F in Black Theology in America, a class he says the coaching staff insisted he take. His GPA plummeted to 1.0 that semester, yet, he said, his eligibility was never in question.

He was not the only player in academic jeopardy. Jay Murphy, who joined the team in 1980, flunked out of the Colleges of Arts and Sciences twice and was readmitted to the school's Evening College in 1983-84, his senior year. Murphy's unusual academic arrangement was revealed by teammate Martin Clark in March 1984 after he quit the team in frustration over BC's lack of academic standards.

As Adams's grades faltered, so did his dreams of becoming an NBA player. He said Davis called him into his office during the summer between his sophomore and junior years and suggested he transfer. Adams, who would have had to sit out a year, refused.

When Davis left in 1982, Williams took over and began building around his younger players.

"He didn't care about me, either," Adams said. "Nobody did. So I stopped caring, too."

In his final semester at The Heights, Adams logged three F's and two D's. His dismal senior season left him feeling abandoned, and, he said, he later sought counseling for depression.

"It was sad how they treated him," Talley said. "They disposed of him like some old rag doll."

Adams enlisted the help of AHANA (African-American Hispanic Asian Native American) director Donald Brown and met with AD Bill Flynn that spring to request the opportunity to take summer classes in 1983.

"He lectured me for a good 45 minutes about not taking care of my studies, then he said he'd enroll me in summer school," Adams said. "But I was so messed up at that point, I didn't follow through. I had no money, no job, no place to stay. I never went back."

Flynn died in 1997. Woods takes exception to Adams's characterization that he did not receive the required academic support.

"You have to realize even though he now says he wants to graduate, we wanted him to graduate some 20 years ago," Woods said. "We want all of our students to graduate. We're disappointed whenever that doesn't occur. He was given opportunities to finish. He didn't."

"I'm stunned by his comments," Adams countered. "The guy doesn't even know me. He never even gave me the courtesy of a return phone call. I took full responsibility for not graduating on time. I'm not blaming anyone for that. But don't call me a liar. I did not sign up for those courses in the Evening College. BC needs to take responsibility for messing with my transcript."

His former teammates say the larger issue was a program more concerned about keeping players eligible to play basketball than providing them with guidance to earn their degree.

Talley said while the climate was difficult back then for African-American athletes, the responsibility to graduate on time -- which he did -- was no one's but his own.

"It was our duty to keep our grades up," Talley said. "It was up to me to know what electives I needed, to see my advisers, to go to class. A lot of the other guys didn't do those things. They left it up to the school and the coaches. They should have known better. I hate to talk about BC in a bad way. I loved it there, and it did so much for me. I just hope there have been changes for today's African-American athletes on campus."

When Talley, Primus, and Michael Adams graduated, they were trumpeted as the class that turned the tide academically for African-Americans. Primus said the euphoria was short-lived.

"Once we were done, we were just a statistic for them," he said. "The only time I ever hear from BC now is when they want money."

Eligibility change
The climate has changed significantly at The Heights since Primus, Talley, and Burnett Adams were in school. Today's student-athletes are no longer allowed to maintain their eligibility by enrolling in the Evening College. DeFilippo has also tightened rules regarding behavior on campus and tried to create a diverse environment.

"It's a hell of a lot better than it was 20-some-odd years ago," said Hill, who remains a member of the campus police.

DeFilippo said he was unable to discuss specifics regarding Adams's academic status, but Adams said DeFilippo told him the failing grades in the Evening College will not affect his standing and he can graduate if he completes four courses and maintains a 2.8 GPA.

Adams said he will continue to fight to have the Evening College courses stricken from his transcript. He still has not learned who sent in the "correction" to the Globe.

With the help of Ferna Phillips, Adams has applied through the NCAA for a program that helps student-athletes complete their degree by defraying the costs of books and tuition. Adams said he's hoping to move to Boston in time for the fall semester.

"I never lied about my education," he said. "Every job application I've ever filled out, when it asked if I graduated from college, I said I didn't.

"All I wanted was the chance to say I did -- and have it be true."

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