It was a bewildering proposal made in the midst of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s long bout with academic fraud related to athletics. In February 2013, the university’s athletic director, Bubba Cunningham, suggested it was time to renovate the Dean Smith Center to include luxury suites.
The proposal suggested that what UNC really needed wasn’t more silken comfort for boosters, but a better understanding of what had gone wrong with athletes taking no-show classes.
Installing luxury suites signifies the kind of extravagance that has brought major college revenue sports to the current crisis. It also typifies the devotion to expensive entertainment that allowed UNC-CH to neglect the education of its football and basketball players.
Now, 18 months later, Cunningham says plans to renovate the Smith Center – or even replace the 28-year-old basketball arena – “have been pretty much on the back burner for 12 months.”
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It would have been encouraging if the athletic director had put off the plans after sober reflection. He could have said that it’s time to focus not on frills but on fundamentals, such as making sure athletes attend actual classes and receive true grades and a real education. But that is not the reason for postponing the next round in the athletics arms race.
Cunningham says it’s best to wait because of uncertainty. UNC-CH athletics could face higher scholarship costs because of the O’Bannon ruling that allows players to be compensated for the full cost of attending college. And there’s the NCAA’s decision to give the five richest athletic conferences “autonomy” to make their own rules regarding player benefits and players having contact with agents.
Whatever the reason, it’s encouraging to see one part of college sports’ ever-expanding investment in entertainment pause for a moment. Perhaps in the interim, UNC-CH will see that using millions of dollars to build basketball arenas and football stadiums or to renovate older ones isn’t a sign of a university’s accomplishment expressed by opulence. Rather, it’s a sign of skewed values that place entertainment above education.
What Cunningham really should propose is a different change in Smith Center seating. Take out the posh court-side seats reserved for boosters and surround the court with low-priced seats reserved for students. That would be a true sign of progress in setting the right priorities at UNC-CH.