Erik Highsmith (left) reportedly plagiarized four 11-year-olds for a communications assignment. (J Pat Carter / AP)

The University of North Carolina’s football team is currently playing under a one-year bowl ban imposed by the NCAA for rules violations committed under former coach Butch Davis.

To this point, the school and its athletic department have avoided further punishment for the academic fraud scandal that allegedly involved numerous football players taking classes in the African and Afro-American Studies Department.

But UNC is certainly not out of the woods just yet, and a News & Observer report indicates the need for a more extended investigation.

Senior wide receiver Erik Highsmith committed plagiarism on a blog for a communications class he took last spring, according to the report, and the source material he used just so happened to be a piece on chickens written on an education Web site… by four 11-year-olds.

As Dan Kane of the News & Observer reported:

Instructor J. Nikol Beckham said she spotted the plagiarism and reported it to the academic support program for student athletes. By then, an NCAA investigation had turned up numerous examples of a tutor providing improper help to football players, and Beckham was concerned the plagiarism went beyond Highsmith and her class.

“I suggested that they consider that this isn’t an isolated incident,” she said, “and I expressed my disappointment considering everything that had been going on for the last year. And I received a great deal of assurances that it would be handled.”

The four investigations into academic fraud at UNC-CH are largely focused on classes within the African and Afro-American Studies Department that never met. But another theme is also emerging as more becomes known about the school work: football players cutting and pasting from various sources to fulfill written assignments.

In Highsmith’s case, Beckham said someone at the academic support program told her they would talk to the student, “but after that, I never heard anything.” She has since left the university to teach at a community college in central Virginia.

Beckham also discovered that another entry from Highsmith lifted passages from an essay on the SAT and GRE prep Web site,

The plagiarism investigation involving UNC’s football program began last July when former defensive end Michael McAdoo filed a lawsuit for reinstatement on the team after he was placed on academic probation for violating the university’s honor code. In the lawsuit, he produced a paper he had submitted that included egregious plagiarism. The offense had previously gone unnoticed by the honor court, the athletics department and the NCAA and the finding led to a lengthy investigation of the athletic department and the African and Afro-American Studies Department. McAdoo was not permitted to return to the team. He now plays for the Baltimore Ravens.

UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp called the discovery “another sad part” of “the most difficult year in the lives of everybody involved.” Last month Thorp announced he will step down from his role as chancellor in June.

Highsmith has 39 receptions for 395 yards and two touchdowns this season. He missed only one game last season, and that was due to injury.

As if things weren’t bad enough for the football program in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels clawed their way out of a first-half hole to take the lead at rival Duke on Saturday, only to watch Sean Renfree toss a touchdown pass in the final seconds that gave the Blue Devils their first win against UNC since 2003.

Full disclosure: I graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with a double-major in Journalism and Communication Studies. I never once wrote a blog post about the poultry industry.

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