KNOXVILLE English professor Linda Bensel-Meyers cringes when she opens her e-mail.
Since going public a year ago with academic fraud allegations against football players at Tennessee, the 1998 national champion, she's gotten hundreds of vulgar, profane messages from enraged fans.
I can't even read them, said Bensel-Meyers, a Renaissance scholar, church organist and the mother of three teen-age sons. They are really disheartening.
But she understands the emotions she has stirred.
Do yourself a favor. Do the state of Tennessee a favor. Do the entire NCAA a favor ... and shut the hell up!! one Volunteer supporter wrote.
The accusations: athletes were steered to easy courses, had low grades raised after finishing courses, were allowed to delay declaring an academic major and had tutors write their papers.
The goal: to stay eligible to play before 108,000 spectators at Neyland Stadium, where football drives a $44 million-a-year athletic program.
Bensel-Meyers' accusations prompted nearly a dozen internal and external investigations, three defamation lawsuits and continuing media coverage.
To date, no wrongdoing has been found, no players punished and no NCAA sanctions leveled against the university.
The university did tighten faculty access to student records the tool used by Bensel-Meyers to build her case.
And Bensel-Meyers, 47, has suffered, professionally and personally.
She no longer feels comfortable walking across campus, going to the cafeteria or working late in her third-floor office overlooking Neyland Stadium.
People point at me, glare at me, shove me. I am a pariah, she said.
She says intimidation comes in phone calls, rifled papers and tampered computer files. She suspects phone taps.
A faculty committee praised her last October saying she has consistently upheld the highest ideals of the profession, but few professors openly embrace her cause.
Many people have come into my office and cast on me their burden of guilt. You know, I really support what you are doing but I can't come forth because I need this job,' she said. I don't want their guilt.
Her stand also has strained her marriage. Her husband, Michael, objected from the outset when ESPN called her last September for response to claims by two of her tutors that papers were written for players.
Bensel-Meyers doesn't supervise all tutors working with athletes. Many work for the athletics department.
But she knew enough, and she told her husband she needed to go public to defend her teachers.
I had no choice. I have tenure, they don't. He said, Well, it's best to look out for No. 1.' ... I disagreed.
Now, after 14 years and on the brink of full professorship, she's considering leaving the university where she oversees English classes for 4,000 freshmen and some 100 tutors.
University President J. Wade Gilley isn't dissuading her.
Gilley, a walk-on football player at Virginia Tech in the 1950s, says Bensel-Meyers' charges are based on rumor and suspicion, and after 10 investigations, nothing inappropriate has been found.
He is convinced Bensel-Meyers has a larger agenda to eliminate scholarship athletics in colleges and universities as we know it.
But Jeffrey Kovac, a chemistry professor who started a legal defense fund for Bensel-Meyers, said she is an academic at heart and really believes in the ideals of a university.
She is a first-generation college kid, raised on a chicken farm in Pendleton, Ore., who wound up at the University of Chicago on a (music) scholarship. It really transformed her life, he said.
When she began raising concerns internally in 1991, Bensel-Meyers had faith the university would quickly address them, he said.
I don't think she really understood how powerful big-time college athletics is ... and how deeply woven the reverence for the football program is in this university, Kovac said. In that sense, she was naive.
To Bensel-Meyers, the allegations showed a pattern of cheating, civil rights violations and intimidation.
But investigators university lawyers, administrators, faculty, the Southeastern Conference, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, even the FBI (looking into the bugging of Bensel-Meyers' office) have failed to find proof.
Two university committees and the NCAA still are looking into specific problems Bensel-Meyers cited in a review of 39 athletes' records.
Meantime, two defamation lawsuits brought by player Reginald Ridley and former tutor Victoria Gray against ESPN and Robin Wright, the former director of the athletic department's writing center, are set for spring trials.
To settle a third lawsuit brought by player Spencer Riley, the university tightened faculty access to student records.
Bensel-Meyers isn't named directly, but she has hired a lawyer.
The issues raised at Tennessee are not unique. Minnesota, Southern Cal, Texas Tech and Michigan State all dealt with academic fraud investigations in recent years.
Other professors have been reproached for speaking out. English professor Murray Sperber got death threats for criticizing Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight before his firing.
I know if there are NCAA violations people will blame me, Bensel-Meyers said.
She said she just wanted to ensure that all academic operations were handled by academics. Instead, the athletics department taught her a lesson about players and academics.
Their concern is to keep them eligible, she said. Keeping them eligible is quite different from keeping them educated.
Published: Mon Sep 18, 2000 | Modified: Sat Aug 06, 2005 03:14 p.m.