The academic scandal consuming the University of North Carolina sports program represents the most morally offensive institutional misconduct in the history of college sports.
It’s far worse than the money-for-athletes misbehavior that seems to pop up every few months or so…whether it’s Johnny Football’s autographs, or Reggie Bush’s mansion, or Chris Mills’ Emery package, or even the Pony Express payoffs that resulted in SMU football receiving the NCAA’s death penalty: a complete one-year ban on competition.
From an institutional perspective, it’s far more troublesome than any point-shaving scheme — the late 1940’s college hoops gambling epidemic and the Goodfellas collision with Boston College cagers were both discrete malfeasances manipulated by unsavory outsiders.
And while the underlying behavior isn’t nearly as repugnant as Jerry Sandusky’s sickening devastation of innocent young lives, the systematic conspiracy among the UNC administration, faculty, and athletics — as well as the direct and destructive impact on the very student-athletes whom the university is entrusted to protect — makes Penn State’s see-no-evil coaches and administrators appear in comparison to be just a bumbling collection of fools.
Accordingly, there is one, inescapable conclusion: The University of North Carolina athletics program deserves the death penalty.
Let me pause for a moment for some personal disclosure and reflection. One of the myriad reasons I’m so excited to have joined the KSR team is that Matt Jones and crew have helped shatter the myth of pure “objective journalism.” There are certainly some outstanding journalists in sports, politics, and elsewhere who work hard to portray both sides of every story fairly. But to be human is to be biased; and I believe that the best writing occurs when writers wear their partisanship on their sleeves so that readers can make the ultimate judgment in the proper context.
So…if you read my first piece last week, you know that I’m a card-carrying member of the Big Blue Nation. As such, I wouldn’t be disappointed to see the Tarheels fall farther behind my Cats in the chase for history’s winningest college basketball program. (And does anyone have any dirt on Kansas?)
But I’ve never been a Carolina hater: I loved the MJ teams of the 80s; I rooted for the Heels against the obnoxious Fab Five in ’93 and against the annoying Izzo in ’09; and unlike their elitist, patronizing archrivals down the road in Durham, the Tarheels have always seemed to conduct themselves with an appearance of class.
Much of UNC’s enduring reputation is due to the leadership and stewardship of one of the game’s most revered figures — the impossible-to-dislike, the very emblem of collegiate fair play, Dean Smith. But apparently, when Smith was in the process of hanging up his proverbial hightops, the school’s appearance of class metastasized into disappearances in class.
If you haven’t tuned into ESPN lately (and if not, what exactly are you doing at this Web site?), it was revealed that over an 18 year period, more than 3100 University of North Carolina students — almost half of them athletes — enrolled in a series of sham African and Afro-American (AFAM) Studies classes. These courses provided students with respectable grades despite them never having to take a test, or even to show up in class.
Last week, UNC released a report, conducted by a group led by former U.S. Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein, that uncovered a cynical cabal of faculty members, administrators, and academic advisers behind the scheme. These officials conspired to keep athletes eligible to play (which required maintenance of a 2.0 GPA) by steering them to classes in which the only requirement was a single paper that was never read, but in which A’s and B’s were bestowed simply for signing up. An example of the fraudulent absurdity? Students in third-level Swahili were able to fulfill the elite university’s foreign language requirement by writing a paper on African culture in English, not Swahili.
Indeed, the Wainstein Report revealed that AFAM Studies Chair Julius Nyang’oro and manager Deborah Crowder ran a “shadow curriculum” whereby students received no instruction — indeed, many had no interaction, ever, with any faculty member.
So far, no top school officials or leading coaches have been implicated in the wrongdoing. But as the report made clear, the classes’ existence were an open secret on campus: Academic advisers who were entrusted with keeping athletes eligible to play encouraged them to bolster their GPAs by enrolling. Worse yet, the damage wasn’t limited to the athletic department — word spread throughout the Greek system — indeed, 53% of the students impacted were not athletes.
My friend and fellow recovering politician, Jeff Smith, was an AFAM major at UNC during the first four years of the academic fraud, though he did not enroll in any of the so-called “paper classes.” Now a professor himself at The New School in New York City, Smith knows his way around academia and crime (check out his journey from politics to prison and his insights on prison sex). He reports that for at least a few mid-1990s-era athletes, the troubling culture underlying the scheme permeated some of the AFAM program’s regular classes: “I had classes with prominent football and basketball players, and they were pretty much like other students; some were excellent, attended class regularly and participated in class and study groups. But others rarely showed or participated. I could say the exact same for frat boys or women’s soccer players. That’s not to deny what apparently occurred, but to try to contextualize it.”
It is this context that illuminates the central problem with the UNC scandal. Oceans of ink, liquid and virtual, have been spilled debating the rising professionalism of intercollegiate athletics. While some desperately grasp to the Athenian ideal of amateurism, I think we should be paying college athletes (more on that in future KSR columns). But whatever the future holds, the bargain we have with college athletes today is that in turn for universities profiting from their labor, students receive free education: For the 99.9 per cent who will never earn a dollar in professional sports, the consideration for playing sports is academic preparation for the workplace.
Certainly, the widely publicized pay-for-play scandals deserve punishment — paying some athletes and not others undermines the integrity of the game. But from a moral perspective concerning student welfare — and that’s supposed to be the NCAA’s and member universities’ focus — it’s less troubling. In a perfect world, Manziel and Bush and Eric Dickerson should be able to earn back some of the money they are making for the university.
In stark contrast, the UNC scandal subverts the very moral bargain universities cut with student athletes. The Tarheel students who took these courses received no education; in fact, many had no contact with instructors. They were funneled through this fraud as a ruse to maintain their spot on the team; and for the vast supermajority who didn’t go pro, cast adrift on the job market with fewer tangible skills and less training. And thousands of non-athletes were collateral damage, graduating with a devalued diploma.
The scope and length of the conspiracy, the direct harm caused to students, and the deep undermining of the integrity of the student/athletic system all point to an obvious outcome: North Carolina sports deserves the death penalty. One year in which no varsity sports program can compete in NCAA activities. And of course, harm to unsuspecting, innocent students should be mitigated — all scholarships should be honored, no eligibility should be lost, and any student who wishes to transfer should not be penalized by having to sit out a year.
The UNC scandal is the example of a complete loss of institutional control in a way that directly harmed the very young people whom the university was entrusted to protect. The message must be clear: This can never happen again.
NCAA President Mark Emmert stated that “this is a case that potentially strikes at the heart of what higher education is about.” He’s right. And if college sports is to maintain any credibility, Emmert must strike at the heart of the Tarheel sports program.
North Carolina deserves the death penalty. Otherwise, the term “student athlete” will continue its long, slow devolution into a oxymoronic punch line.