As a college professor in the United States it is difficult to know where to begin as I process the massive scandal that I have read about today regarding UNC-Chapel Hill in which 3,100 students, nearly half athletes, were shown to have taken fraudulent classes in the university’s athletic program. I am not usually one to make extremely bold statements, but education is something I feel strongly
about, and this scandal could not make a clearer statement that this country has lost its way. The love of money has replaced love for each other. We have let ourselves become distracted by games so that we don’t pay attention to what’s most important. We have become a culture of fear instead of striving to be a culture of understanding.
Before I begin I want to make it clear that I am sure that the majority of professors and students at UNC-Chapel Hill have the highest standards of work ethic and integrity and as I speak now I speak also in your name. Those who were part of this conspiracy have brought the most shame to you and I am truly sorry for what you have to go through. Bringing legitimacy to your university is a battle you did not ask to fight, but you will have to. This fight can be made easier or harder depending on who joins that fight. In this essay I write I call upon those who can do the most to help you.
This year Penn State University had their ban lifted by the NCAA on post-season play 2 years early and still much controversy remains about whether this was the right thing to do given that Jerry Sandusky has been confirmed to have molested 26 boys and school officials looked the other way to avoid a scandal for their football team. As if this wasn’t enough of a blight on higher education and how sports plays too high a role in what is supposed to be an institute of higher learning, perhaps it could simply be argued away as the result of one highly disturbed individual, while several higher officials chose to brush off what seemed to them only rumors without clear evidence. Personally the Penn State incident should have been enough for us to take a harder look at our priorities, but as the NCAA softened their initial judgment by lifting the ban it seems that it’s business as usual once again.
What has happened at UNC-Chapel Hill has been happening for nearly 20 years. It, as a result, must involve a far greater number of people ranging from personnel in the athletic program, recruiters, registrars, administrators, and faculty This was a large conspiracy that was covered up for many years and even when the investigation was first opened 5 years ago, it took a long time for the full truth to come to light. Even now this article is buried on the CNN website under many other less dire stories. At a time when public education struggles to maintain adequate funding, when there is a great disparity in public education across the country, and public institutions of higher learning continue to raise tuition as their state funding decreases, the scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill will only act to lessen the trust in public education. What we must work hard to do right now is to show that it is not public education that is the problem, that this is the symptom of a for-profit culture. That when the money made off of TV deals, advertising, and merchandise of college sports takes precedent, that those without integrity can take a larger stake in our society and run it into the ground. Let’s start our call to action with the NCAA.
The NCAA proudly lists on their website their core values which include:
- The collegiate model of athletics in which students participate as an avocation, balancing their academic, social and athletics experiences.
- The highest levels of integrity and sportsmanship.
- The pursuit of excellence in both academics and athletics.
For those you not aware of the word “avocation”, it means “hobby or minor occupation”. Note also the words “integrity” and the emphasis of “balance” and “excellence” in not only their athletics but also academics. These core values are great. As a society we should value athletic achievement, exercise, and health. There is a connection between mind and body and it can come together in sport and competition. It is also important to remember, however, that only about 1% of NCAA athletes will be able to turn professional that means there are many more students for whom their education will be their primary means of having a stable and successful future. Thus if the NCAA believes in these core values it must also be an advocate for integrity in the classroom and at least be partially responsible for the health of the players who suffer injuries while playing NCAA sports which they profit from (NCAA is a non-profit by the way). The NCAA has been recently accused of making large profit off the players who are often fed insufficiently and do not take care of the players who suffer injuries and who many times suffer lifelong problems related to those injuries both physically and financially. The NCAA has a chance here to do the right thing and make its core values be more than just words.
While the NCAA should punish UNC-Chapel Hill for not displaying academic integrity in accordance with their core values, what is the responsibility of UNC-Chapel Hill? The university is ultimately the one that perpetrated this conspiracy and they need to make sure everyone involved faces punishment; no scapegoats, no more lies, no more cover-ups. I understand why, from a legal standpoint, they cannot lift the degrees of those students. They are the ones who advised students to take those classes when they saw they were struggling academically. Rather than providing them with legitimate academic support to help them improve they gave up on trying to expand their minds and said “Your only value to us is in the money you make us in the athletic program, we are not concerned about your future”. They were supposed to show a student how the same work ethic they apply to their sport, can be applied to learning. They were supposed to show those athletes the same way they stretch and bend their body they can do also with their mind. Given the low chances of those athletes becoming professionals they were supposed to give them alternate avenues of success. And even if they did get drafted into a professional league, injury can happen at any time, and they were supposed to give athletes something else to fall back on. Instead they have left these students bereft of legitimate degrees, and employers will have a hard time trusting the value of any degree achieved by a UNC-Chapel Hill alum who was involved with their athletics program.
I would also like to point out that the fraudulent program in which these students were enrolled in was an African-Studies program. While I am sure many other scholars can talk about this with more vigor than I can, I find the choice in the academic field of this fraudulent program more than a little insulting given the race issues we still face in the United States. I know and have known many scholars in this area and this is an extremely important field for young African-Americans to learn about their history in this country and to understand issues of race both in the past and today. I am not sure whose idea it was to use African-American studies to house the fraudulent courses but those people have done a great disservice to African-Americans by doing so and have treated a very important area of scholarship cheaply.
Of course we cannot be naïve enough to believe that this is the only school where this is happening. This scandal will open investigations into all athletic programs, especially in NCAA division I programs, that have had rumblings of grade inflation for athletes in the past. It will make employers everywhere wonder if perhaps the academic success of a student athlete is deserved. At my university, it is only a NCAA Division II school. Athletics is a money drain on our university and does not make us profit. Yet many student athletes report that coaches will not let them miss a practice even if a legitimate academic opportunity that will benefit their future, such as going to an academic conference, comes along. I have seen resources that could be used for academic programs go towards athletics. We all must join the fight to maintain legitimacy of public higher education institutions and remember that the NCAA core values emphasize balance and that the sport is, for almost all athletes, a hobby and nothing more in the context of their entire lives.
What responsibility do the students themselves share in this scandal? While they were advised to take these fake courses, they knew they were fraudulent. One student who has come forward even made the Dean’s list having a semester full of fraudulent courses and admitted to not attending one class and receiving all A’s. These are young adults who were not completely unaware that what they were doing was wrong. It is difficult, however, for me to judge a young mind bolstered by the fame that we as a society gives them, and bolstered by the pride of their friends and family at making a renowned college sports team with a full scholarship. This is coupled with the fear of losing the scholarship that saves their family or themselves financial burden should they falter midway through their degree and cannot continue in the athletic program. I am not going to judge you for decision you made as a young adult, but I would ask you to consider the steps you take now with care. Because now that the scandal has been brought to light, the next steps you take are yours, and yours alone. You know what you did was wrong, and you do a disservice to every student athlete who has worked hard to balance their athletics and academics to legitimately achieve their degree. You do a disservice to the meaning of the baccalaureate degree which is supposed to be based on a minimum of 120 credit hours of academic rigor. More importantly you do a disservice to yourself by knowing that you walk around with something that many are in great financial debt for and that many have worked hard for, but for which you did not earn. Though you were misled, you were old enough to know that the easy path was not the right path. Retake those credits and demand that UNC-Chapel Hill allow you to do so for free and provide for you the support they should have during your time there.
The final call to action is for the rest of us. We must take a look at ourselves and ask ourselves some tough questions, because in the end it us who generate this profit from collegiate sports by watching and attending the games. It us who read the articles and watch television programs of analysis. It is us who buy the merchandise and wear the colors of our favorite collegiate teams. So what can we do? To start we, as parents, can make sure that the academic integrity is high at the institutions our children attend. We can be realistic about what our child’s athletic ability really means and remember that even if they are one of the lucky ones to go professional that smart player is always better than just a player and that when the body breaks the mind still needs to be in good shape so that life goes on. We need to ask questions, we need to talk to our children and make sure they are learning and let them always know that doing what is right is more important than a moment in the spotlight. We as the public need to make sure that we continue to fight for educational equality across this nation, to make sure that we maintain high standards in curriculum, academic rigor, and pedagogy, and vote for politicians who recognize the importance of education in making this nation great. We must ask ourselves if it’s right that the highest paid public employee in 40 out of 51 states is a college football or basketball coach? Finally we must remember that a good life is built on a solid foundation made from love, integrity, compassion, humility, self-reflection, and learning. Sports are fun to watch, but it’s still just a game, and the future of our children and our nation cannot rest on a game.