Athletics: Divide the donations

December 30, 2011 

— I'm an unbalanced Tar Heel fan. I pay for season tickets with zest and optimism. I don't, agreeably, miss games. Before I moved to North Carolina a dozen years ago I had a modest respect, if no enthusiasm, for Duke, N.C. State and Wake Forest. I've long since realized each is to be detested, even if for different reasons. The world would be blessed if rid of them.

Beyond ethnocentricity, I harbor great attachment to the role and mission of intercollegiate athletics. I never really amounted to much as a football player. But I did do a stint in what we used to call the Big Eight. Not many experiences parallel the thrill, and the terror, of taking the field before 70,000 or 80,000 screaming maniacs in Lincoln or Norman.

Simply put, I'm a believer.

But even for my ilk, the times try. Scandals, both vile and corrupt, sweep the nation. The University of Miami returns to its natural posture: suspension. Ohio State's president deploys sanctions in ways that embarrass the merely cynical. Listening to Jerry Sandusky defend himself presses one to vomit. If Joe Paterno did even what he confessed before the grand jury, he deserves to be remembered in infamy. Penn State higher-ups performed no better. The football program should simply be shut down. Wait a couple years. Let the stink subside.

And humiliation visited closer to home. Butch Davis created a football enterprise that operated as NFL ancillary rather than university component. The gigantic portraits of Davis dominating the football center told all we needed to know. Swept away, coaches, administrators, faculty and trustees aided and abetted. If Davis was unaware of the taint, his blindness was replete. At some point, you're responsible for the folks you bring with you.

But these transgressions, one hopes, are temporary and fixable. I'm more worried about one that digs deeper.

In recent months, UNC has laid off hundreds, cut class sections, axed programs, canceled searches, reduced aid, frozen salaries, eliminated outreach efforts and lost noted faculty. At the same time, we've introduced tuition increases so massive they betray the central mission and defining purposes of this ancient public university. For most of the campus, depression lurks.

But then there's the gated community. Hideously expensive skyboxes soar. Millions are spent to buy out a coach who should have been fired for cause. A new athletics director is brought in at $525,000 a year. And that doesn't include the various "incentives" added. (Remember the salad days when paying someone a half-million a year could assure his best efforts?)

A new football coach is paid millions - much more than the chancellor and system president combined. And we don't even know how much he'll receive from private apparel and merchandise vendors - selling the university's images and logos, not his own. Money is, literally, no object. The gulf between academic and athletic resources mocks the word "university."

Of course, I can hear the explanation now - quickly and angrily proffered. "Wait, athletics money comes from private donors and revenues, you're comparing apples and oranges."

I'm less convinced with each passing year. Many corners of university life are privately funded. They subsidize parts that aren't. Besides, I don't believe affection-driven alumni would simply turn a cold shoulder to their alma maters if they weren't dominated by sports programs. If, today, many focus exclusively on athletics, we facilitate the concentration.

So I propose a simple reform. UNC-Chapel Hill should say, without embarrassment or hesitation, "if you want to contribute to our athletics efforts, great, but we're going to dedicate half the money to the academic side." If you're saying you don't care about the university's actual mission - the education of our students - take your money down the road. We do care about it. Obsessively. Like nothing else. Even more than basketball.

I have no confidence, of course, that the NCAA or our money-grubbing conferences would enact such a rule. And no one wants to unilaterally reduce arms. But we've led by example before. The bold Carolina Covenant forced public and private universities across the nation to dramatically bolster need-based aid. We stepped back, against the tide, and almost alone, from early-admission programs that burdened disadvantaged students. Others came along.

If Carolina, and then, perhaps, Michigan, Stanford and Notre Dame followed suit - splitting donations - maybe Oklahoma, Alabama, Nebraska and LSU would feel the squeeze. OK, maybe not. But at least we'd start to separate the universities from the minor league sideshows.

Gene Nichol is the Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor at UNC's Law School and director of the UNC Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity.

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