The Scandal at UNC

Over the past two days, I was working on a longish post about the recent spate of media attention focusing on the athletic/academic scandal at UNC. At some point, when I hit save, I got a bunch of red lines, and I lost everything. This is not an allegory. It actually happened. So, in lieu of that, here’s a shorter one.

The indictment in December of Dr. Julius Nyang’oro, the former Chair of African and African American Studies at UNC has prompted a new wave of media interest in the athletic/academic scandal in Chapel Hill. Orange County DA Jim Woodall has charged Nyang’oro with obtaining property under false pretenses because Nyang’oro accepted $12,000 in the summer of 2011 for a course, AFAM 280: Blacks in North Carolina, that never actually met and required only the completion of a paper at the end of the summer. The deeper scandal has been the revelation that a system of bogus classes was on offer from the 1990s and 2011. Though non-athletes also benefited from these classes, their primary intent appears to have been to have helped athletes at UNC, particularly in football and men’s basketball. That has been the focus of the numerous high profile stories that have come out in the past week about UNC.

On New Year’s eve, the New York Times ran a front-page story. Paul Barrett, a columnist for Bloomsberg Businessweek, has now written twice in scathing terms about what he describes as “the rot” at UNC and has vowed to stay on the story. On Monday, NPR’s All Things Considered featured Dan Kane, the reporter for the Raleigh News and Observer who has broken many of the most important details about the scandal. So far, none of these recent pieces has broken new ground about what actually transpired. But Nyang’oro’s lawyer has promised that we will hear the former professor’s side of the story as his prosecution moves forward and, I think it’s fair to say, there’s quite a bit of anxious anticipation about what Nyang’oro might have to say. The university has undertaken some far reaching administrative changes in the wake of the revelations about what occurred in AFAM/AFRI. But it has also tried to pin the blame on two “rogue” employees, Nyang’oro, and the long-time administrator in that department, Debbie Crowder, who left in 2009. Woodall has suggested that Crowder herself might soon be indicted. If that were to happen, she too might break her long silence on these matters.

It’s anybody’s guess at this point whether important new information is still forthcoming. Regardless, for anyone concerned about the system of phony courses that developed at UNC and the larger implications for big-time college sports everywhere, several larger questions require more serious attention. 1) for how long can participating universities continue to insist that the athletes they recruit to play sports on campus – and this pertains especially, though not exclusively, to football and men’s basketball – are students first, when a substantial number of those athletes are woefully unprepared for the rigors of college level academic work? 2) if the universities do continue to recruit academically under-prepared individuals to play sports, what will induce the schools to commit the resources necessary to ensure that the students get a meaningful education, instead of being passed through a dubious, if not outright fraudulent curriculum designed only to keep them eligible? 3) if the schools cannot provide the intensive academic remediation that some of the highest profile athletes require in order to make good on the promise of a degree that has value, then don’t the NCAA and the schools need to acknowledge that the players are employees who have a right to some remuneration for their labor?

In sum, the overlords of big time collegiate sports have not yet been forced to acknowledge that the athletes are either real students, or real players. Instead, in too many cases, they exist in a never, never land in which they’re not really students, but neither are they afforded the rights of professional athletes, despite the fact that they were brought to campus to sustain a multibillion dollar sporting enterprise. That unwillingness to define clearly the purpose of these individuals’ presence on campus is a byproduct of systematic and institutional cynicism and self-delusion. The outcome is pervasive rule-bending, sometimes resulting in egregious fraud.

That’s not a problem specific to Chapel Hill. It’s baked into the cake of the current model of big time college sports.

Update: CNN ran a report yesterday featuring Mary Willingham, the former academic counselor for athletics at UNC who has been speaking out about the insufficient resources being devoted to helping seriously underprepared athletes succeed in the classroom. The piece’s great strength is that it puts this issue in its broader context, showing the very high proportion of athletes in football and men’s basketball being admitted to major universities despite reading at middle school levels or below.

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