Gio: Scandal 'puts stigma' on UNC athletes

CINCINNATI -- He's more than a year removed from being in a classroom at the University of North Carolina, and he's still about a year short of graduating, but one of the school's most well-recognized recent attendees spoke out Friday about the on-going academic fraud scandal that took another ugly turn early in the day.

"It stinks," current Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard said. "It definitely stinks because people think, 'Oh, all you do in [that] school is sit there and cheat.'"

Bernard's comments came after he was asked about an ESPN "Outside the Lines" report from Friday morning. In the report, Rashad McCants, the second-leading scorer on UNC's national championship 2004-05 men's basketball team, said tutors wrote his term papers and that despite going to class about half his time at UNC, he remained able to play largely because he took bogus classes designed to keep athletes academically eligible.

McCants added that head basketball coach Roy Williams knew about the "paper-class" system at UNC. So-called paper classes didn't require students to go to class. Students instead were required to submit only one term paper to receive a grade.

Williams denied McCants' assertions in a statement Friday.

"I strongly disagree with what Rashad has said. In no way did I know about or do anything close to what he says and I think the players whom I have coached over the years will agree with me. I have spent 63 years on this earth trying to do things the right way and the picture he portrays is not fair to the university or me."

Bernard, a former Tar Heels football player who left school about two years before his scholarship expired, admitted he knew little about the school's now storied academic fraud scandal, but he was adamant in defense of players he said did work the right way.

"That's what bothers me is that just because of two or three people or whatever, it almost puts a stigma out there that everybody from UNC that graduated didn't do anything," Bernard said to ESPN.com during a break at a photo shoot for a product he's newly endorsing, energy drink Vita Coco. "Obviously that doesn't always feel good because you worked hard. I know how hard I worked when I was there."

Daily class attendance and late-night studying were Bernard's norm, he said.

"If people knew me and understood the type of student that I was, like how long I would stay up trying to study for anatomy tests or physiology tests, they would not think one bit that I was cheating," Bernard said. "The thing that I always understood was that if you wanted to learn, you're going to do it the right way. The guys that didn't want to do it were always the guys that sat in the back of the classroom, didn't want to do anything and expected everything to come to them. Because of those guys, they made everything for the rest of us who were sitting in the front of the class trying to get an education, trying to get our degree ... it just kind of in a way ruins it for everybody."

Bernard left UNC after the 2012 football season. In April 2013, the Bengals drafted him with one of two second-round picks. As a rookie last season, he played an integral role in their offense, which ranked 10th overall. Cincinnati drafted his former college teammate, center Russell Bodine, in the fourth round of last month's draft.

The running back said his plan is to finish his degree requirements next summer when he enrolls in online classes.