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Obituary: The “Student/Athlete” (1964-2017)

INDIANAPOLIS — The “Student/Athlete” died on Friday, October 13, 2017, after decades on life support, at the age of 53.  The cause of death was asphyxiation, brutally smothered by one of its parents, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”). An autopsy revealed the murder weapon: an NCAA press release announcing that the University of North Carolina athletic program would receive no penalties for an academic scandal that one impertinent recovering politician termed “the most morally offensive institutional misconduct in the history of college sports.”  Minutes after the Student/Athlete’s passing, another lifeless body was discovered: the NCAA’s Credibility, whose death had been rumored for years.

The lineage of the deceased charts back to ancient Greece, where the concept of the Athenian Ideal of Amateurism was born. The term “Student/Athlete” was conceived in 1964, coined by the NCAA’s first executive director, Walter Byers.  Byers gave birth to the nomenclature as a shield against reformers’ efforts to compensate college athletes under workers’ compensation principles.  Byers named the baby “Student/Athlete” because “Student” comes first: The NCAA and its member schools, of course, have always placed primary priority on the educational training of their athletes, with sporting activities simply an incidental sideline to their personal development.

From the moment of its birth, however, the Student/Athlete suffered from a variety of debilitating ailments.  Coaches, boosters, and agent-wannabes regularly infected the concept through their efforts to grab for their pieces of the financial riches accumulated by the volunteer activities of athletes.

Occasionally, over the years, the NCAA tried to inject health and wellness back into the Student/Athlete by imposing sanctions on players and programs (outside of the Tarheel State, of course) when the amateur ideal was undermined.  These included severe violations of the principle…where the academic virtue of college sports suffered mortal threats…suspensions were levied, for example, on students accepting slices of pizza and used mattresses, assistant coaches butt-dialing recruits, and athletes posing for free in a charity calendar.  Most recently, the NCAA exposed and excised a metastasizing cancerous growth on the paradigm, through a months-long investigation in which they identified and commenced punishing coaches and agents involved in a landmark shoe company pay-for-play conspiracy.

Oh wait, that was the FBI.

Still, the NCAA was handed an historic opportunity to breathe new life into the Student/Athlete when it was presented with a scandal that subverted the very moral bargain universities cut with their students.  For nearly two full decades, in order to keep athletes eligible to play (and earn money for their institution), University of North Carolina officials steered more than 1500 players toward fake courses, in which they received no education; in fact, many had no contact with instructors.  The vast supermajority who didn’t go pro were subsequently cast adrift on the job market with fewer tangible skills and less training. This was a clear 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. This was the textbook case of undermining the very concept of a “Student/Athlete.” Indeed, as Walter Byers’ modern day counterpart, NCAA President Mark Emmert, stated: “This is a case that potentially strikes at the heart of what higher education is about.”

But, apparently, since only about half of the students that attended these sham classes were athletes — since over 1000 non-athlete students suffered simultaneously from this sports-inspired ruse with a devalued diploma — the NCAA did not consider this enforcement action within their jurisdiction.  That’s some logic.  In the words of today’s most esteemed political philosopher:

(h/t anonymous embarrassed UNC alum)

The Student/Athlete is survived by Rank Hypocrisy, Utter Disbelief, Wealthy Shady Shoe Middlemen, a Devalued Sport, and a Pissed Off BBN.  Funeral services were held this weekend in the Dean Dome under the banner of a third championship that should have been vacated. In lieu of flowers, please consider the impossible: suppressing all of your basest instincts and rooting for Duke when they take on the Tarheels.

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Article written by Jonathan Miller

Jonathan Miller, The Recovering Politician (Twitter: @RecoveringPol), writes about the politics of sport and the sport of politics...and sometimes about bourbon. Jonathan has been elected twice as Kentucky's State Treasurer; practices as a crisis management attorney; authored three books on faith, public policy and crisis management; serves as a Contributor to The Daily Beast, played straight man on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart; reached the final table of the World Series of Poker; and with his summer camp sweetheart, raised two remarkable twenty-something daughters.