Department saw Chapel Hill charade

August 18, 2012 

Big-time college football is not a recent invention, although the takeover by the TV networks and the consequent influx of vast sums to the schools with successful “programs” has sent the whole enterprise to new heights, or depths.

The crowds, the pageantry, the huge stadiums, the intensive news coverage – all were characteristics of top-level intercollegiate football during its earlier years that we’d recognize today.

Starry-eyed amateur ideals aside, college football back then also could be rough around the edges. The violence and injuries during an era when equipment was rudimentary sparked a backlash that could have seen the sport banned.

Payments, jobs and other benefits for players were common practice in some places whether legal or not. There also were instances of ringers – players who suited up for a school even though they weren’t legitimate students.

Is that essentially what they’ve been doing in recent seasons at UNC-Chapel Hill – fielding a football team salted with ringers?

This has to be the standard: For a university to avoid the conclusion that it’s cheating, team members cannot be allowed to perform so poorly in the classroom that if they weren’t football (or basketball) phenoms, they’d be flunked out.

In Chapel Hill that standard has been breached if not shredded. Worse, the fault lies heavily with an academic department, where professors are supposed to be front-line guardians of integrity.

The Department of African and Afro-American Studies, under then-chairman Julius Nyang’oro, looks as if it was allowed to become Tar Heel ringer heaven.

Athletes, notably football players, flocked to courses the university has classified as “irregular” – courses that didn’t meet and typically required only a term paper. Judging by the transcript of former football and basketball star Julius Peppers that surfaced last week, cosseting of athletes in the department known as AFAM probably went on at least since Peppers was a freshman in 1998.

We’ll now see whether an investigation headed by former Gov. Jim Martin – the latest assigned to dissect a situation that the university for too long was reluctant to confront – can lay out the full extent of the abuses.

But even if AFAM was enlisted in what amounts to a scheme to keep athletes eligible to play while they bombed in other courses, the university should resist any calls to downgrade or dismantle the department itself. Whether the focus is on Africa or the experience of African-Americans, the issues, topics, questions and challenges that can be addressed by a department of this nature are worthy ones.

When black Americans were regarded as inferiors who weren’t even allowed to attend UNC-Chapel Hill, the study of issues pertinent to their lives would have been a specialized niche for a small coterie of open-minded scholars.

But in recent decades we’ve come to recognize the significance of black-oriented themes to a broader understanding of American history and culture. African-Americans have contributed mightily to our society’s overall success, and also have figured and still do figure in some of its most vexing dilemmas, such as generational poverty and the crime that is a corollary.

As for study of the African continent, that’s a rich field indeed. It is a place of turmoil where wars have global ripple effects. And going back as far as the days of slavery, Africa has been a principal theater in the struggle for human rights.

The Department of African and Afro-American Studies, on its website, says its goal is “to give specific attention to the histories, cultures, cultural linkages, and contemporary socio-political realities of the peoples of Africa and the African Diasporas.”A diligent student choosing to concentrate on Africa as a major could broaden out to include some of the science-themed subjects in which the continent looms large. It is, after all, the mother lode for anthropologists and other scientists trying to decipher the riddles of human origin.

Or an American history major could engage with AFAM 408, “Black Thought and Black Intellectuals in the 19th and 20th Centuries,” taught last spring by Professor Kenneth Janken, a Rutgers Ph.D. in American history who is the department’s director of undergraduate studies.

UNC-CH aims to teach its students about the world and how to think. There is nothing wrong with athletes, many of them African-American, choosing a field of study that appeals to their curiosity and personal identity while giving them intellectual skills that could lead to any number of careers.

But the university must uphold its end of the bargain by making sure courses in this or any department are rigorously taught and graded. Overall paths of study must be logically structured.

If any department becomes a place for the football program to park athletes who are students in name only – i.e., ringers who can’t or don’t do college-level work – then there has been a monstrous failure in standards and oversight for which faculty members must be held responsible. At UNC-CH, let the damage be fully gauged and the repairs begin.

Editorial page editor Steve Ford can be reached at 919-829-4512 or at

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