There’s something uniquely special about this afternoon’s Elite Eight matchup between the University of Kentucky Wildcats and the University of North Carolina Tar Heels. Arguably, the two best remaining teams in the NCAA tournament square off, reprising their thrilling December contest, perhaps the best college game played all year, and certainly one of the most fun to watch. Inarguably, the teams represent two of the greatest traditions in the history of college hoops; their marquee pedigrees evoking decades of memories of extraordinary basketball.
There’s also something uniquely disturbing about today’s contest. The University of North Carolina simply should not be playing today. Their postseason presence — following an almost-championship run last year — makes a mockery of undergraduate athletics.
More than two years after revelations surfaced that the school had engaged in the most morally offensive institutional misconduct in the history of college sports, the team plays on, without even a hand check on the wrist.
Every time I have made the above charge, I’m scolded for minimizing the Penn State football child molestation scandal. Certainly there, the underlying crime was far more abhorrent. But the institution’s crimes were limited to a handful of miscreants, and with this week’s conviction of former school President Graham Spanier for child endangerment, justice has been served.
By contrast, UNC’s academic scandal poisoned institutions all across campus, and the injustice lives on. I’ve written several pieces in this space, but here’s a reminder of the ignominy to further boil your blood on Game Day:
- Over nearly two decades, more than 3100 UNC students enrolled in a series of sham African and Afro-American Studies classes. They were awarded As and Bs, even though they never had to take a test, or even to show up in class.
- According to an independent report, commissioned by the University, the scam was perpetuated by a conspiracy among faculty members, administrators, and academic advisers, the point of which was to keep athletes eligible to play by steering them to classes in which the only requirement was a single paper…that was never read.
- An example of the fraud? Students in third-level Swahili were able to fulfill the school’s foreign language requirement by writing a paper on African culture in English, not Swahili.
- The classes were an open secret on campus — word spread throughout the Greek system — in fact, more than half of the students impacted were not athletes.
- When the independent report was released in October 2014, public outrage and media criticism was fierce, with one particularly unstable columnist even suggesting that the Tar Heels should receive the death penalty. A year later, new damning allegations were aired involving basketball tutors providing inappropriate academic assistance. And just this past December, the school just received its third notice of allegations from the NCAA.
- And yet…the NCAA investigation still drags on, with delay after delay sparked by new revelations. The university’s response? Throw out some of the evidence because a four-year statute of limitations has expired…because of all of the foot-dragging and new allegations.
Let’s be clear: The UNC academic scandal subverts the very moral bargain universities cut with student athletes: In return for all of the acclaim (and money) you bring to the university, we prepare you for the workplace with free education and training.
Yet the students who took these courses received no education; in fact, many had no contact with teachers. They were funneled through this fraud just to keep up their athletic eligibility. For the vast majority who didn’t go pro, they were cast on the job market with fewer tangible skills and less training. Further, thousands of non-athletes were collateral damage, graduating with a devalued diploma.
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 school was entrusted to protect. The message must be clear: This can never happen again.
Indeed, when he first learned about the transgressions, NCAA President Mark Emmer stated that “this is a case that potentially strikes at the heart of what higher education is about.” He was right then. But now, as his institution reaps many millions of benefits from UNC’s continued presence in postseason, his own institution’s credibility plummets even further.
Maybe the NCAA will finally get its act together in April, take appropriate action against North Carolina, and vacate any of its potential wins in this year’s tournament. And maybe our nation’s politicians will finally put aside partisanship, roll up their sleeves to find compromise, and foster some solutions to this nation’s most vexing policy problems.
One can dream…
But in the meantime, if you need yet another reason to be rooting for a Monk monster performance, a Bam re-boom, or D’Aaron domination, let’s hope that our Cats end a Tar Heel postseason that never should have begun in the first place. Let a Cat victory serve as a remedy for NCAA inaction.