So many times, as the athletics and academic scandal was slowly and painfully unfolding at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill over the past two years, Bill Friday would be stopped by friends and strangers in the grocery store, outside his campus office, at lunch in the Alumni Center, at the pharmacy. Those conversations began, “You were right all along, Mr. Friday. You tried to tell them, but people wouldn’t listen. Now they’re sorry.”
The response of the president emeritus of the UNC system, revered, respected and liked by so many North Carolinians, was typical in its modesty and lack of anger: “I take no pleasure in that.” And he didn’t.
The truth is, as UNC-Chapel Hill was mired in embarrassment, even ridiculed by rivals, Friday’s heart was breaking a little. Even so, he refused to even think, “I told you so.” Instead, as he told The News & Observer only weeks before his peaceful death in October, “We have to go from here now. We have to move on.”
For decades, during and long after his tenure as UNC system president, through his founding co-chairmanship of the Knight Commission on college athletics and in semi-retirement, the soft-spoken president kept trying to raise awareness of the need to clean up the mess that college sports had become, particularly in the marquee areas of men’s basketball and football.
Presidents and chancellors, Friday thought, had too often become prisoners of athletics boosters, who drove institutions to build bigger, to pay coaches astronomical salaries, to recruit athletes who were marginal students at best, to feed an out-of-control machine.
And, no, they didn’t listen. But now, UNC-Chapel Hill has an opportunity to honor a man and his movement, and to restore the “Carolina Way,” which used to mean a school that played well and by the rules and set an example for others.
But that term is sadly inappropriate now. Let the university create a Friday Commission to revive that example, to chart the course for institutions that do not want to sacrifice their integrity on an altar of athletic success.
Where to begin? The university knows from painful experience what to do, if it has the gumption to lead and not follow.
First, do not admit athletes if it is clear they cannot do college classroom work. Period. To do otherwise means the university is exploiting the athlete, and the athlete is exploiting the university on the way to a professional career. This must stop. Having a special academic support system designed to maintain the eligibility of athletes is not the answer.
More to do
In fact, that support system should be abolished, and athletes should have no fewer, but no more, opportunities to get tutoring and counseling than other students. Yes, that they have obligations to practice that take time away from studies is a fact, and for that they deserve, perhaps, an extra year on scholarship to reflect those obligations. But the tutoring system as it stands is not appropriate.
Third, the university should raise its own academic standards for sports eligibility and do so now, not waiting for the NCAA governing body, a loose-reins outfit if ever there were one, to kick in its own changes. Let the Carolina Way be the right way.
Fourth, coaches and athletics department officials need to be under tighter oversight of presidents and chancellors. In too many places, athletics departments have been treated as separate kingdoms. And in too many places, that has resulted in big trouble.
Sure, installing these kinds of reforms may result in setbacks on the field and court. But look what happened when priorities veered off track. The university has been through a humiliating experience. Something like five investigations have been in progress. The school that held itself as an example for all others became an example of what happens when priorities are misplaced, what happens when the wisdom of an elder statesman is ignored.
Now it is time to listen, and at last to act, in his name.