Reforming UNC

September 7, 2013 

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reviewed two reports last week that spoke to what must change to better balance athletics and academics. The first was an outside panel’s list of 28 recommended reforms. The second was an affidavit from a criminal investigation into illegal payments to UNC football players.

The panel’s report called for UNC-CH to respond to its long-festering academic-athletics scandal by setting strong standards in collegiate sports that put academics first. The affidavit was a reminder of the quicksand of athletic dominance on which UNC leaders tried to build their school’s reputation.

The outside panel – led by Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities – offered a list of sensible and needed reforms. Unfortunately, the report runs the risk of meeting the fate of earlier reports: greeted with praise and then put aside.

Those inclined to dismiss the panel’s recommendations as unrealistic would do well to dwell a while in the reality of the affidavit. There, former UNC football player Greg Little describes how he received more than $20,000 from a sports agent in 2010. Little said he received the money in $2,200 monthly installments funneled through a former UNC tutor. The Georgia-based sports agent is the subject of an investigation initiated by the N.C. Secretary of State’s Office, which regulates sports-agent activities in North Carolina.

The state investigator wrote that Little wanted to unburden himself of his involvement in payments that violated NCAA rules and led to sanctions against the football program. “Little stated he was ready for this chapter of his life to be over and to get on with his life in a clean state,” the report said. “He advised he was going to tell us everything.”

UNC coaches and administrators could have moved past the scandal faster by being more open about what went wrong. Instead, the university’s leadership has persisted in a “let’s-move-on” approach, minimizing the offenses and doing little to ensure they do not recur.

The panel’s report points to a better response, a necessary response. UNC can’t put the problems of the past into the past until it makes real changes in the way athletics and academics are balanced.

The 28 recommendations revolve around common-sense ideas of accountability, transparency and limits. For instance:

•  Ensure that academic support program for athletes operates without undue influence from others, including coaches.

•  Ensure that student-athletes are subject to same rules, disciplinary procedures and sanctions as other students.

•  Make financial data more transparent to the public, including data about long-term athletics debt and rates of change in athletic spending.

•  The ACC or NCAA should establish spending caps on specific sports for team operating expenses.

That such basic notions of a proper athletics operation have to be offered is a measure of how far the UNC athletics program drifted into a self-contained and unaccountable enterprise.

Perhaps the panel’s most challenging recommendation is that “UNC-CH should consider requiring ‘year of readiness’ for ‘special admit’ athletes in the freshman year and advocate for this reform nationally.”

This is a sound idea and not a new one. Years ago, no freshman could play varsity athletics. Bringing the restriction back for athletes who are clearly challenged by the transition to college puts both the well-being of the student and the university’s commitment to academics first.

And keeping academics first is what UNC-CH athletics should seek most to achieve. The panel showed how to get there. Now Chancellor Carol Folt should take that path and make it again The Carolina Way.

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