Commentary

DeCock: North Carolina now a national symbol of dysfunction in college athletics

ldecock@newsobserver.comJanuary 16, 2014 

Even after a tough couple of years in Chapel Hill, it turns out things can get worse. The thread that Marvin Austin tugged when he quoted rap lyrics has now, this week, proceeded to unravel North Carolina’s entire sweater.

Former academic adviser Mary Willingham has come forward with data she says illustrates the university’s practice of admitting unqualified athletes and failing to educate them. Those revelations made headlines far beyond the Triangle.

Then, on Wednesday, former football player Michael McAdoo acknowledged that he was steered to Julius Nyang’Oro’s Potemkin classes by academic advisers in the athletic department, casting new light on persistent university claims – and statements to the NCAA – that athletes did not specifically benefit from those classes.

Chancellor Carol Folt issued an open letter Thursday disputing Willingham’s data and conclusions, but she should tread carefully. Her predecessor made similar statements while trumpeting the now-discredited Martin Report, which failed to uncover exactly the kind of practices McAdoo described.

As North Carolina’s foibles have started to make national news, the school that once prided itself on finding the intersection of academics and college athletics has become a symbol of how that marriage has failed so badly, and not just in Chapel Hill.

As bad as things are at North Carolina, the truth is, North Carolina is far from alone. This time, everybody else is doing it.

We’ve been told a million times that it’s OK for athletic departments, bowls and television networks to make billions of dollars on the backs of these kids, primarily basketball and football players, because “they get a free education.”

Well, what if they don’t?

What if they’re admitted unprepared for college, given just enough help to stay eligible, and then given the boot when their time is up, no better prepared for real life, no better educated than they were when they first arrived on campus?

That’s not compensation. That is, as McAdoo put it, “a scam.”

The exploitation of college athletes, unpaid employees in an industry that generates billions of dollars, is crooked enough even when they get the education they’re promised. If they’re just being shuffled along, ignored or put deliberately into sham classes, it’s not only intellectually dishonest, it borders on fraud.

Meanwhile, Willingham gets death threats from North Carolina “fans” who pay their hard-earned money, and lots of it, to see these kids play ball, not go to class. Those loonies have less in common with the average fan than they do the people who actually run college athletics and will go to any lengths to defend the student-athlete industrial complex.

An entire billion-dollar economic system is built on the free, uncompensated labor of college athletes. That’s not just unfair, it’s un-American.

Change is inevitable. College athletics is a bubble, no different than the tech boom or the mortgage market. Even if the increasingly astronomic rights fees being paid by television networks are sustainable, which is certainly a questionable proposition, athletes are going to share in the bonanza at some point, even if it takes years of litigation. That will shatter the entire foundation of college athletics as we know it today.

What’s happening at North Carolina is as embarrassing as it is disturbing, but it has also served as a concrete example of the inherent flaws in the entire system – a prestigious university driven to go to any length in service of the athletic machine, to the detriment not only of its own reputation but the “student-athletes” who are supposed to benefit.

North Carolina needs to get its own house in order, that much is certain, but its problems are merely symptoms of a larger disease that affects all of college athletics to the core.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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