Syracuse and the Collegiate Model

The NCAA has come down pretty hard on Syracuse University, imposing scholarship reductions, vacating of wins in several sports over several seasons and a half-season suspension in 2015-16 for Hall-of-Fame basketball coach Jim Boeheim, whom it cited for failing to monitor his program. (this last point cannot be comforting to UNC fans as the university awaits the results of the NCAA’s investigation here).

We should, of course, be well past the point of surprise or, in a sense, even condemnation of transgressions committed under the “Collegiate Model.” Particularly (though not exclusively) in the profit sports, the enterprise is a sham. In his column in the Times today, William Rhoden tried to put the Syracuse violations – which included significant academic improprieties as well as improper benefits and other rule breaking – in larger context:

These scandals, which are by no means limited to the blood sports of football and basketball, fuel the debate about the role of intercollegiate athletics on campus. Namely: Should the university be engaged in serious intercollegiate athletics? Can top-quality academic programs and top-quality athletic programs coexist?

My friend Jeff Spinner-Halev, a professor at UNC, had an apt response in comments:

I’m on faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and like many people here I am appalled at the athletic scandal that has rocked our campus. But the lesson for me is not there’s an “uneasy relationship sports and the Academy,” as Rhoden writes, but that we should admit that the college revenue sports are a big business and act accordingly. Let’s just get rid of the façade that there is anything amateur about these sports. If we continue to indulge in this lie, the scandals will keep happening. The NCAA says placing basketball success at Syracuse over academic success was a misplaced institutional priority. Is anyone really surprised that a well paid basketball’s coach priority is to win games, particularly since many of these college basketball coaches have financial incentives written in their contracts to win? Boeheim shouldn’t have done what he did, but he simply did what he got paid to do. He’s no hero, but the real hypocrisy is to continue the idea that the sports have much to do with the academy.

There’s really not a whole of tension in this relationship. The incentives, as Jeff points out, all line up very clearly. Kevin Draper put this all quite succinctly last week at Deadspin, in a post titled “Jim Boeheim Doesn’t Give a Fuck and Why Should He?”

Draper notes:

Jim Boeheim’s job isn’t to be courageous or accountable. It’s to make Syracuse University and the NCAA money by doing whatever it takes to win basketball games while not being so overtly corrupt that ignoring his methods would threaten either institution’s ability to claim that they give a fuck about the players, which they feel the need to do for public relations purposes. Boeheim is very good at one part of his job and apparently not so good at the other, but in all he’s doing fine.

Brad Wolverton recently reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education that twenty major programs are currently under investigation for a range of academic violations. The number is probably only that low because the NCAA enforcement staff is already stretched to the breaking point. When schools hire coaches, their charge is that the coaches win games. That’s reflected in the vastly larger financial incentives for winning than for academic success.

We can keep expressing indignation about the latest wrong-doing, and the NCAA can continue to pretend that academic integrity is a top priority (its legal life now ever-more dependent on that pretense). Or we can face reality.



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