Point of View

'Student' comes before 'athlete'

February 28, 2012 

— A "statement of athletics principles" recently released by a group of UNC-Chapel Hill professors has elicited a surprising backlash from some supporters of athletics programs.

They ask: Why don't these professors mind their own business? What do they know about the life of the college athlete? And - one from my own email inbox - why do faculty hate athletes so much?

Such questions insult the faculty and reflect a distorted view of university life. To begin, it is worth pointing out that most of the UNC faculty who advocate structural changes in college athletics consider themselves Tar Heel fans. We take pride in the amazing success of our soccer teams, rejoice whenever our basketball teams beat Duke and have learned to watch with interest the College World Series. But college sport teams, for now at least, are not autonomous commercial enterprises.

Athletes participate in sports only because they have first been admitted to the university as degree-seeking students. Like all students, they have been entrusted to the faculty's educational care, and faculty therefore have both the right and the obligation to resist the degradation of the educational process in which they are engaged.

The pressures placed on athletes by coaches, fans, the ACC, the NCAA and the university - to practice up to 40 hours a week, to travel long distances, to miss many classes during the season, to play games ending at midnight, to perform at a high level, all the while remaining academically "eligible" to compete - inevitably undermine the integrity of UNC's educational mission.

For faculty, the term "integrity" means the honest, unhampered pursuit of truth and discovery in all fields of knowledge. This form of integrity is vital to the life of any university, and it is essential to the student-teacher relationship. Protecting it requires that students aspire to high standards, that they push themselves intellectually, and that they actively seek to learn from their mentors, from their classmates and for themselves.

The maintenance of integrity also requires that faculty take seriously their obligations to students - that they treat them with respect, keep them focused on their educational objectives, regard them as partners on a journey of discovery and facilitate their mastery of a body of knowledge that will enable them to function with greater competency in the world-after-college.

If we demand any less of ourselves or of our students, if we farm out our responsibilities as educators to "athletic academic support" services, if we allow outside forces (television, radio, conferences) to infringe on our prerogatives as educators, then we should frankly admit that the college-sport enterprise is a sham, and that we are witting participants in an elaborate charade whose sole purpose is to keep athletes eligible - eligible to play their sports for the university's glory and enrichment.

Thankfully, in Chapel Hill such hypocrisy could never be tolerated once fully recognized. At UNC, faculty advocacy for the academic rights and interests of athletes is, in fact, a longstanding tradition. In 1990, the Faculty Council urged then-chancellor Paul Hardin to pursue aggressive reforms at the conference and NCAA levels: to curtail practice time, to reduce travel demands, to shorten seasons, to limit players' eligibility to three years (allowing at least one full year for academic single-mindedness) and to stop admitting students whose level of high school preparation left them destined to fail in the classrooms of a research university.

Hardin pledged to carry out the program; he even happily noted "the mood of the faculty and the mood of the chancellor are very compatible. So is the mood of the athletics department."

Somewhere along the way, alas, the sense of urgency dissipated and most of the key proposals were forgotten. In the intervening years, the runaway train of "big-time" college sport has reached ever more dangerous speeds.

Faculty have a responsibility to rekindle the spirit of collaboration evident in 1990. Working with academic and athletic administrators, students, and all who care about higher education in North Carolina and across the country, UNC faculty must do all that they can to steer the runaway train of college sport back on a path toward sanity - where the valuable lessons that come from participation in sports are complemented, refined and finished by the academic lessons that can only emerge from rich and mutually honest student-teacher engagement.

Faculty will then be minding their business precisely as they should - and helping UNC serve as a national model for the successful integration of academic and athletic excellence.

To that we can all say: Go Heels!

Jay M. Smith is professor of European history at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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