The academic scandal at UNC Chapel Hill bothers me for many reasons.
For starters, it’s an embarrassment – on a national scale. The day after UNC released the Wainstein Report, I opened the Wall Street Journal to see a front-page photo of Carolina’s football team with a reference to the scandal. Later in the day, I was thankful, for once, that I do not stay up late enough to watch the late-night TV talk shows, which I feared would have their share of fun with my alma mater.
The scandal also shows that some at UNC placed athletics above academics, which, frankly, boggles my mind. I mean what parent has never sent his child to Harvard or Yale or Princeton because the school did not have a nationally ranked football or basketball team? I would still be a UNC football fan even if the Tar Heels were horrible; I know this because I watched the Heels in the early Mack Brown years, when they were the brunt of jokes. Consider this one: A man walking down Franklin Street sees four Carolina football tickets on the dashboard of an expensive Porsche; he breaks the glass and leaves four more.
I am not a hypocrite; I enjoy watching college football and basketball on TV as much as any fan. But I watched those sports in the 1970s and 1980s, which was long before college sports became an industry that turned coaches into millionaires.
Never miss a local story.
But mostly the academic scandal bothers me because, I suspect, it cheapens the value of my degrees in the eyes of many. I graduated from Carolina in 1983, long before a university department created fake classes and encouraged athletes to take them. And I worked hard in hard classes to earn degrees in journalism and religion. But I fear that “Carolina graduate,” no matter the year or effort, now carries a negative connotation for anyone on the outside looking in at UNC.
To be frank, part of me doesn’t much care whether you cheat to obtain your college degree. After four years, you won’t have learned much, but I will, so I will have the edge in a job interview. But when widespread cheating lessons the perceived value of what I learned, then that’s a problem.
And what the scandal suggests is that UNC cares less about by diploma than I do, and that should never be the case.
A passion for the game
I was a marginal high school basketball player but only partly because I was slow with bricks for hands and the vertical leap of a turtle.
This self-assessment is now decades old, but I had never been able to adequately pinpoint the cause of my mediocrity until I saw a particular photo in Wednesday’s edition of the Smithfield Herald. The photo, reprinted here, shows two Princeton High School volleyball players reacting to a critical point in their come-from-behind victory over Pender County in the state playoffs. In the photo, now a personal favorite, the players’ passion for the game is obvious, and after seeing the photo, the root cause of my basketball mediocrity was suddenly obvious to me: I lacked the passion needed to be better than marginal as a player.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved the game, still do, and I like to think I understand it better than the casual fan. I also worked hard in practice. But the day after a game, I was the same whether we had won or lost, whether I had played well or poorly or not at all. I know now that was because I lacked the passion so obvious in a couple of Princeton volleyball players.
In hindsight, I should have figured this out a long time ago. It occurs to me now that, in the years after high school, I got more pumped up about coaching youth basketball than I did about playing basketball. I enjoyed imparting what I knew about the game to young people, and frankly, directing a game from the bench was more nerve racking but also more fun than playing in one, at least for me.
That’s not to say I was an especially good coach; I suspect my career coaching record was as marginal as my career playing record. But as a coach, I’m pretty sure I sometimes looked as passionate as those Princeton volleyball players.
All of which is to say that anything worth doing is worth doing with passion or not at all. I see that now.