CommentaryRon Morris

Morris: What happened at UNC happens elsewhere, too

The (Columbia, S.C.) StateJune 17, 2014 

— The academic scandal that has tainted the University of North Carolina athletics department is disgusting, despicable and altogether not surprising.

There is good reason neither the NCAA nor any college has cried outrage that a reputable university would so blatantly violate every ethical standard established through its academic mission.

The NCAA has a difficult enough time policing its member institutions on athletics-related policies. There exists an inherent trust by the NCAA that colleges and universities will abide by their own rules of operating institutions of higher learning, and not sacrifice those principles for the benefit of athletics.

As for the other NCAA member institutions, they are not about to cry foul. To do so would expose those schools as well. Athletes for decades have remained eligible by taking classes that can be described only as bogus, while boosters, coaches and administrators give it the old college wink-wink, nudge-nudge.

If not bogus classes, then every school in the country is guilty of steering athletes to classes in which they cannot fail. It is an age-old problem, since schools began granting admission to athletes who were not qualified to be college students. That begat the problem of keeping those athletes eligible academically to compete on playing fields.

At some point, eligibility began to trump education for athletes.

If the accusations are true, and there is no reason to doubt they are, then this is precisely what happened at UNC. A system was, allegedly, devised to ensure that athletes would remain eligible by passing no-show or bogus classes.

When a former athlete goes public with accounts that he was not required to be a student to compete athletically, no amount of water is going to extinguish the flames of this academic firestorm.

Rashad McCants said that about his days at UNC. He was a starter on UNC’s 2005 men’s national basketball championship team. He told ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” that no-show courses in the African and Afro-American Studies Department kept him eligible.

“When you get to college, you don’t go to class, you don’t do nothing, you just show up and play,” McCants said on the TV show. “That’s exactly how it was, you know, and I think that was the tradition of college basketball, or college, period, any sport. You’re not there to get an education, though they tell you that.”

Before you think this happens only at UNC, consider the testimony last week of Ed O’Bannon, a former UCLA basketball star and the lead plaintiff in an antitrust suit against the NCAA.

“I was an athlete masquerading as a student,” O’Bannon said, according to The Associated Press. “I was there strictly to play basketball. I did, basically, the minimum to make sure I kept my eligibility academically so I could play.”

O’Bannon said he spent 40 to 45 hours per week either preparing for games or playing them, and about 12 hours per week on his studies. So much for the NCAA-created idea that these are “student-athletes.”

Granted, the swath of academic abuse among athletes cuts wide across college athletics. Yet it is wrong to say all college athletes participate in the sham. Most college athletes, likely, are legitimate students. It is a minority of athletes in revenue-producing sports that taints the image for all.

I recall a conversation with an N.C. State assistant men’s basketball coach a few decades ago. The coach insinuated that academics stood in the way of that team’s successes on the court. I am guessing he was not the only coach in the country who believed that then, and there remain more than a few who believe the same today.

So, until that first school comes forward and states that all of its athletes remain eligible by taking legitimate courses like the general student body, then I have a difficult time condemning North Carolina athletics.

Don’t get me wrong, what UNC is accused of doing is as bad as it gets. It is truly despicable and disgusting to know this kind of academic fraud could have existed on a reputable college campus. But the reality is that UNC is the one that got caught. UNC’s alleged fraud was exposed.

You can bet every other college athletics program in the country is hoping none of its former athletes comes forward with charges of academic wrongdoing. Rest assured, there is not an athletics program in the country that has not altered its priorities at some level to place eligibility over education.

That should surprise no one.

Ron Morris is a columnist for The (Columbia, S.C.) State.

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