Folt must take charge on athletics problems

July 7, 2013 

Now, apparently, Bubba Cunningham, athletics director at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has a new game plan for dealing with revelations about problems with academic performance among athletes. He’s just not going to say anything. That is a bad posture, and it’s insulting to the taxpayers who own the place where he works. As of July 1, there’s hope things might change. New Chancellor Carol Folt is in town and in charge and thus the quiet Mr. Cunningham has a new boss. Folt can get off on a strong footing if she takes charge of athletics and makes it clear the university is going to be straightforward and open in its dealings with academic-athletic problems.

The NCAA, college sports’ weak and ineffective governing body, is supposed to safeguard the integrity of college athletics, but unfortunately that means trying to govern a multibillion-dollar enterprise in a harbor where no one wants to rock the boat. Thus, the organization’s performance as steward and enforcer of the rules has been decidedly inconsistent at best.

But the NCAA tried to improve academic oversight by launching in 2003 the Academic Progress Rate (APR), which is supposed to ensure that along with playing sports, athletes are also part of a program with academic integrity. The rate is based on how many athletes on scholarships stay in school and remain academically eligible to play. It’s a figure reflecting the four most recent years of academic performance and retention.

The APR isn’t what it ought to be at UNC-Chapel Hill these days. The men’s basketball team is in eighth place, though at one point it had a nearly perfect score. The football team? It won’t surprise anyone who’s kept up with the seemingly endless academic-athletic problems there that the team last year had a score that put it in danger of losing the eligibility to play in a post-season bowl game.

One spokesman for the athletics department said APR scores don’t have much to do with academic performance, that it’s just one measure, that other sports programs exceed the national average. That’s a strained rationalization, since almost all academic-athletics problems are found in the marquee sports of basketball and football.

Basketball coach Roy Williams says his team’s declining score was because three students transferred out of the program and another was removed from the team. Several football players were suspended or dismissed as well.

Unfortunately, UNC-Chapel Hill’s athletics program has so embarrassed the university with the scandal connecting football players to the African studies program and its phony courses that were so popular with athletes that it is hard to give the university’s explanations credibility.

The university needs to quit rationalizing all that happened, or implying, as did former chancellor James Moeser (who hired fired football coach Butch Davis) that all this is simply the media going after people. The media didn’t phony up the courses. The media didn’t connect football players with agents. The media didn’t create an academic advising system for athletes that, by the refreshing disclosure of a person who worked there, tried to steer those athletes to easy courses.

Chancellor Folt now can set a stronger course, one demanding openness and candor from athletics officials. If she must take action with regard to instituting changes herself, so be it. The university has for too long underestimated the price its reputation has paid.

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