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Original Issue

Life Sentences

Former North Carolina fullback Devon Ramsay got dragged down by the undertow of an academic scandal. He's still struggling to resurface

The logo on Devon Ramsay's T-shirt is recognizable to anyone familiar with college sports. Except that instead of ncaa inside the blue circle, it reads scam.

Ramsay is not a typical NCAA critic. He is not a historian, columnist or lawyer. He is a product of the system of major college football he now disdains, a former fullback and graduate of North Carolina ensnared in an academic scandal that continues to make headlines.

Among the lowlights: Dozens of no-show classes teeming with athletes in search of easy academic credits. One infamous class that consisted only of 19 football players. University investigations. Criminal investigations. Investigations of investigations. A coach fired. A program disgraced. A professor indicted on criminal fraud charges.

Teammates stood accused of academic dishonesty, accepting improper benefits from agents and lying to NCAA investigators. Ramsay? He asked a tutor to review a 2½-page sociology paper during his freshman year. He says the tutor fixed punctuation and grammar and added five sentences—an infraction UNC's honor court didn't deem important enough to prosecute on its own. Even though the final paper was never found, the NCAA declared Ramsay ineligible, forever linking him to the larger scandal.

Ramsay is 25. He has a working-class job and lives at home with his mother, where they watch Scandal and House of Cards. He often thinks back to the early days at Chapel Hill, after the university sold him on its ability to prepare him for both the NFL and whatever might come later. Back when he was named the starter as a sophomore and his offensive coordinator told Ramsay he was the "best fullback" he'd ever coached.

Ramsay hardly watches football anymore.

Schooled, the EPIX documentary that skewered college sports, opened in New York City and D.C. last fall. It devoted one segment to Ramsay, who showed up at the premiere with his mother's book club. "We rented a van," he says. "It was like me and eight moms."

Ramsay grew up in Red Bank, N.J., the only child of a single parent, Sharon Lee, who underwent successful surgery for a brain tumor when her son was nine. Lee says she hardly had to discipline her son. At age seven he did poorly on a test, and when she offered to stop for ice cream afterward, he told her you don't reward someone for doing poorly. She suggested no movie that Friday. He settled on being grounded for two weeks.

She focused on his academics, put him in private schools, sought and found the necessary financial aid. Ramsay attended the Lawrenceville (N.J.) School before enrolling at UNC in 2007.

As the Tar Heels prepared for their 2010 opener against LSU, the scandal surfaced. A full 13 players did not suit up for the game, but the 6' 2", 250-pound Ramsay, then a junior with no connection to the initial revelations, scored a touchdown, his mother in the stands at the Georgia Dome.

A month later, on Oct. 7, university officials summoned Ramsay for a meeting. According to Ramsay, they asked about academic dishonesty, about plagiarism. They asked if they could tape the conversation. They said that by talking to them, he was waiving his right to a lawyer. Then they asked about the sociology paper, at which point Ramsay said, "Are you trying to set me up or something?" He maintained that he hadn't done anything wrong.

Lee's phone rang. The news of her son's suspension and investigation made little sense. She left town, on her birthday, with $60 in her bank account and a full tank of gas. She sat in the athletic director's office the next morning.

Ramsay says he saw hints of the larger scandal, but nothing definitive. "You kind of felt some funny business was going on," he says. The following month, The News & Observer in Raleigh reported that in the football recruiting classes between 2005 and '10, half the players were admitted by a special committee that reviewed the applications of students who did not meet academic requirements. The average SAT score of freshman football recruits fell more than 300 points below the average scores of their classmates.

Ramsay first learned of the questions about his paper after the fourth game of the year, against East Carolina, and the university suspended him along with teammates who had been going to fake classes. He missed the rest of the season, nine games in all. Dick Baddour, then the athletic director, says the university believed Ramsay's case to be bogus from the outset. "He went through hell," Baddour says. "I never thought there was any evidence to prove any wrongdoing. But the process was the process. We had to declare him ineligible to get him back. It took a while."

Ramsay removed himself from football. Other suspended players showed up for games and stood on the sideline; he watched at home or not at all. Lee, meanwhile, watched every telecast, many of which mentioned the investigations and her son.

Toward the end of the season, Ramsay says, Carolina encouraged him to draft a letter admitting the tutor's involvement, reasoning that the NCAA would see that he was not part of the fraud scandal and consider the nine-game suspension punishment enough for any infraction he may have committed. (The school has no comment about Ramsay's case or the larger scandal.) Instead the NCAA made him permanently ineligible. Ramsay and the university appealed. "You could argue the process was unfair," says Baddour.

A few months later, in February, his case was overturned. The NCAA declared him eligible for 2011, but the damage was done. Ramsay felt stigmatized. He often visited his best friend, at Duke, to avoid the lingering questions about his academic integrity. He nearly came to blows with a teammate who called him "cheater."

Ramsay entered his senior season as a pro prospect, only to tear his left ACL and MCL in his first game on a freak play, a defender falling on his knee from behind. He was granted a hardship waiver and returned the next year, but scar tissue around the ACL forced another surgery, and when Ramsay returned near the end of the season, the offense under new coach Larry Fedora hardly used a fullback. Ramsay got on the field for a total of two plays.

"He just couldn't catch a break," says Robert Orr, a former North Carolina Supreme Court justice who worked on Ramsay's NCAA appeal. "Really, it was like a Greek tragedy. In all my years as a lawyer and a judge, I've never seen that lack of due process."

Ramsay went to minicamp with the Bucs last spring, more a sip of coffee than a cup. For a few glorious days he felt normal again, healthy, part of a team. Then, on an untouched sprint downfield, his left leg gave out. He couldn't squat. He still can't.

He kept the sweatshirt and the sweatpants and the T-shirts that Tampa Bay gifted to rookies, all reminders of the career that never was. Back in New Jersey he met a prospective employer at the gym, Eric Hansel, the CEO of Navantas, a sustainability start-up. Eventually Hansel added Ramsay to his team, but not before a partner voiced concerns. "I don't know if we want this guy," Ramsay was told the partner said. "Do you see what happens when you Google his name?"

Although the press release announcing his reinstatement said that "no violation has occurred," Ramsay still wants a letter from the NCAA that clears him, something he can hand over at job interviews. A trustee at UNC apologized to him at a basketball game before he graduated in 2012, with a degree in public policy. Ramsay says that was the closest thing he's gotten to a formal apology.

Hansel's start-up has yet to take off, and that has forced Ramsay into other work, a job at the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, where as an audit analyst he makes sure toll collectors have correct balances. "It's really a change of pace," he says. "It's a very blue-collar job."

Ramsay does not blame his former teammates. He does not consider his degree devalued, though he expects the scandal to impede him for a long time. He sees guys he once played against in the NFL, with seven-figure paychecks. He wonders what would have happened if he had never been injured, if he had never played football—at least not FBS football.

One friend played football at Columbia and each summer interned at Bank of America, which later hired him. At Chapel Hill, Ramsay says, players were expected to remain in school through summer sessions, work out and lighten the next semester's course load. Football was the job that mattered. He knew that. He embraced that. But now he finds himself almost unemployable, by the NFL or anyone else.

For this he blames the system. It allows coaches to jump from school to school for bigger paydays but limits player movement. That's how it works.

Ramsay remembers his sophomore year, when two redshirt seniors were asked to graduate and play elsewhere so their scholarships could be used for the next wave. There's always a next wave. That's also how it works.

The players have the least voice of all. The recent decision allowing players to unionize may change that, but not in time to help Ramsay. "It's definitely a step in the right direction," he says. "Had there been a players' union, I doubt that I and some of my teammates would have had to go through that horrible situation."

"The NCAA operates like an Elks Club, but it has the weight of a court of law," Lee says. "The NCAA has the smartest lawyers. But it's about controlling the money. It's about enforcing the rules. The outcome, the energy for it, the fodder for the cannons, as it were, are these young men and their bodies. And it's tragic that they abuse them so."

There's no storybook ending here, not yet, but Lee can envision one. She says her son received a great education. She hopes one day he'll work for an organization in need of change—the NCAA.

His offensive coordinator told Ramsay he was the "best fullback" he'd ever coached.

"He went through hell," Baddour says. "I never thought there was any evidence to prove any wrongdoing. But the process was the process. We had to declare him ineligible."

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HOME BODY Ramsay (with Lee) went to Chapel Hill with high hopes and left with a stain on his name that he cannot erase.