Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Why the NCAA Should Drop the Hammer on the University of North Carolina

Editor’s Note: I don’t usually talk about sports on this blog (it is called Tyler Talks TV after all), but I haven’t written anything in a while and this is a topic that interests me and I had a few things to say.

I generally loathe the NCAA.  It is an ineffectual organization that is mostly concerned with maintaining the status quo of a cartel built on unpaid labor.  It pretends to uphold the morals and virtues of academic institutions but instead largely concerns itself with making sure the money keeps flowing to athletic departments and that student-athletes see none of it. 

The one foundational principle on which its concept of amateur athletics rests is the idea that athletes are being compensated for their labor and their bodies in the form of a college education.  It’s an idea that has proliferated and found support among both fans and the media.  “College athletes are already paid with their education [sic],” wrote Syracuse professor of sports management Richard Burton in the US News and World Report.  Charles Ellison of The Root, argued that “college athletes already earn anywhere from $55,000 to $125,000 a year in accumulated full tuition, room and board packages.”  “A free college education…expert coaching…free meals…[and] free medical consultation” are all touted as benefits of being a student-athlete according to the Lincoln Journal-Star, hometown newspaper of the multiple national championship-holding Nebraska Cornhuskers.  Even athletes  have bought into the story, with Florida State quarterback and reigning Heisman Award winner Jameis Winston telling reporters that  “We’re blessed to get a free education.”

The University of North Carolina would kindly like you to know that that is all bullshit.  A report, conducted by United States Department of Justice official Kenneth Wainstein and released today by the university, details a program coordinated by two university administrators (including a department head) in the university’s Department of African and Afro-American Studies that funneled thousands of students, almost half of which were student-athletes, into no-show independent study classes that required little to no effort on the part of students in exchange for grades ranging from A’s all the way to B+’s.  The athletic department and its academic advisors knew about these classes and intentionally steered their athletes, especially those needing to boost their GPAs, to these easy classes.  Faculty members and administrators at the university knew that these independent studies were not being overseen by faculty members, in violation of university policy, but said and did nothing.  The entire report and a pretty damning breakdown are available at Deadspin but the money quotation is this: “[T]he University failed to conduct any meaningful oversight of the [African and Afro-American Studies] Department and [the Office of Academic Support for Student Athletes], and Crowder's paper class scheme was allowed to operate within one of the nation's premier academic institutions for almost two decades.”

The first “core value” of the NCAA is a commitment to “the collegiate model of athletics in which students participate as an avocation, balancing their academic, social and athletics experiences.”  The second value is a commitment to “the highest levels of integrity and sportsmanship.”  The third is a commitment to “the pursuit of excellence in both academics and athletics.”  For the past two decades the University of North Carolina has flaunted and downright disgraced the term “student-athlete,” violating each of these three "core values" and it is for this reason that the NCAA should levy its harshest possible punishment against UNC.

If I haven’t made it clear by now, I firmly believe that student-athletes should be allowed to be paid beyond the cost of a scholarship.  I believe that the billions of dollars earned by universities every year from college athletes render the idea of “amateur” Division I athletics laughable.  But the NCAA has made the preservation of the collegiate model its raison d’être over the past few decades, coming down hard on athletes for such terrible violations of the amateur spirit as signing autographs (allegedly for pay), selling commemorative jerseys, and trading school-issued trinkets for free tattoos.  Hell, Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant was suspended for most of his junior year not for committing an NCAA infraction, but for lying about a meeting that could have been (but wasn’t) an infraction. 

The NCAA has, for years, waged war on professionalism in college athletics.  But if it every truly believed in the rhetoric it spews, this is the hill the NCAA must make its stand on.  The idea that student-athletes are being compensated for their labor with a college education is the one last barrier preventing a landslide of support in favor of paying student-athletes in real money rather than company scrip.  If that education turns out to be worthless because athletic departments are funneling their students into classes with no educational value, then what are these athletes receiving in exchange for their labor?

Let me be clear: I do not believe that UNC was unique in its offering of no-show classes for student-athletes.  I believe it was unique in the scope of its program, but every school has ways of getting its students good grades, whether it’s pressuring an impressionable, young graduate assistant into boosting a C to a B or enrolling its star, junior quarterback in a freshman-level history class.  This kind of academic fraud is not unique to the University of North Carolina, a university that “prides itself on…academic opportunities not found anywhere else).” 

That this is not a new phenomenon does not mean that we should ignore it, however.  That this is the most egregious such circumstance yet found means that the NCAA should do everything in its power to ensure that it does not happen again.  And that means dropping the hammer on UNC.  This scandal demonstrated a lack of institutional control at all levels of the university, from the athletic department to the provost.  For two decades, the University of North Carolina gave truth to the lie that college athletes are are students first and athletes second.  If ever the NCAA was a true bastion of amateurism in athletics, this would be the time to show the public why.  That is, obviously, if the NCAA actually cares about the “student” part of its student-athletes, and not just ensuring a continuing supply of free labor for its constituent institutions.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him at TyTalksTV AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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