I like college sports — that the athletes do not get paid to play, for instance; that the athletes play for their community, for the pride of their place, taking the field in South Bend after growing up watching the Fighting Irish; I like that athletes are “student-athletes,” who leave the gridiron and head to the library.
Well, perhaps I should say that I like what college sports were. Thanks to dogged investigation in the Tarheel State, it is becoming unavoidably clear what many college sports have become.
News first broke in 2010 that some “student-athletes” at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the flagship institution of the UNC system, were being shuffled into classes where academic requirements were, to put it gently, minimal. A new 131-page report just issued by attorney and former Department of Justice official Kenneth Wainstein displays the true extent of the fraud. Wainstein claims that at least 3,100 students from 1993 to 2011 were funneled into “paper classes,” independent-study-style courses that required nothing except a term paper — which was frequently plagiarized, or written by a tutor. “Students [in these courses] never had a single interaction with a faculty member,” writes Wainstein.
The classes were a creation of Deborah Crowder, student-services manager in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM). Sympathetic toward students who were not “the best and the brightest,” and a diehard UNC athletics fan, she concocted hundreds of classes, issuing paper topics and grading papers — giving, of course, As and high Bs — though she was not a faculty member. The faculty member formally listed, AFAM department chairman Julius Nyang’oro, acquiesced to the scheme, and when Crowder retired in 2009 took up the fraud. Counselors in the know pushed struggling students into the department, and some even mentioned to Crowder what grades a student required to remain NCAA-eligible. Coaches knew. Academic advisers knew. A whole lot of students knew. And no one said anything — except Mary Willingham, an on-campus reading specialist who worked with a number of student-athletes, who says she was demoted for blowing the whistle. She filed suit against the university this summer.
At the Washington Post, Terence McCoy notes that the fraud at UNC is not unique — though in the words of Gerald Gurney, president of the Drake Group, which “defend[s] academic integrity in higher education from the corrosive aspects of commercialized college sports,” UNC’s cover-up may well constitute “the largest and most nefarious scandal in the history of NCAA enforcement.” But athletes have benefited from administrative sleight-of-hand at Florida State, the University of Michigan, Kansas State, and even Stanford, where student-athletes have a tendency to enroll in “Social Dances of North America III.”
No doubt similar preferential treatment is occurring at universities across the country — because, as Mary Willingham’s research suggests, it is necessary. According to Willingham, one in twelve students playing football or basketball at UNC — so-called “revenue” sports — were reading below a third-grade level. That those students were admitted to middle school, let alone an institution of higher learning, is alarming. That not just Crowder but a whole nexus of coaches, counselors, and faculty thought it acceptable to give those students diplomas is appalling.
But it points to the moral and intellectual rot that has taken hold of the typical university, due in large part to the culture of much college athletics. College football and basketball (to name only two) are de facto semi-professional leagues — and revelations that college players regularly receive “improper benefits” from agents and others suggest that they are treated as such. There is no deference to the “student” portion of “student-athlete,” because, for the most part, they are rarely students. Division I soccer players spend the vast majority of their time on the field. Does anyone believe that the star running back for a Rose Bowl–contender SEC school is spending much time in the lecture hall?
Allow me to submit a provocative solution: End college sports — in the interest of both sports and college.
At many institutions, especially large public ones, it is well-nigh inarguable that the athletic programs have so metastasized that the campus is almost an NFL or NBA farm team with a small educational arm attached, rather than an institution of study that happens, by the by, to enjoy athletics. The latter is a much healthier state of affairs, situating as it does athletics in their proper place: subordinate to intellectual pursuits.
There was a day when colleges focused on what a few holdouts still quaintly call the “cultivation of the whole person.” In that education, which took seriously the role of the college as a place of intellectual discipline and moral training, athletics could have a role — but as part of that larger cultivation. Physical health was encouraged because it served pursuits of mind and spirit. Additionally, athletics offered the opportunity to exercise strength, courage, sportsmanship, and grace (in loss, and in victory).
The pressure, however, of keeping up name-brand athletics programs has turned the focus of many schools away from any substantial concept of education. Who is surprised that, as UNC demonstrates, academic standards slide as a result?
Moreover, UNC’s athletics obsession harmed not only student-athletes. Half of the enrollees in UNC’s paper classes were not involved in athletics; they were simply students Crowder thought “deserving of special assistance — from sexual assault victims to students with mental health issues.” They, too, were steered into the diploma EZ lane, and not a single UNC staff member or administrator thought that troubling.
For these students — and no doubt many more, nationwide — college was largely a waste. The elimination of college sports would remove from universities the sizable number of students who use them merely as stepping-stones to the big leagues. Without sports programs devouring time and money, administrators could turn universities’ attention back to education, increasing the likelihood that schools would set, and enforce, real academic standards. Students “deserving of special assistance” might actually find administrators and counselors able and willing to help them in ways better than shuffling them into nonexistent classes. Meanwhile, those many potential “student-athletes” could venture into professional leagues, where they could receive earnings that they want, rather than the diploma they often do not.
None of that is likely to happen. The social cachet attached to a college diploma is so strong in America that we shunt into higher education those who have not the desire, the capacity, or the need to be there. Additionally, the idea of education that these bold steps would require exists in only a few corners — and certainly not in the dollar-hungry university-research complex, which is responsible for not a few of the ills of modern higher education (many of which would remain, football squad or not).
But the “education” offered to at least 3,100 students at UNC, and many others elsewhere, is, in any meaningful sense, worthless. Sooner or later, that will not stand.
I like college sports, and I want them to be what they were intended to be — an integral part of a genuine, substantial education. For that to happen, colleges may have to take their eyes off the ball.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.