In a four-part series last week, The News & Observer’s Dan Kane drew into one narrative his years of reporting on how bogus classes were created to help athletes at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. His sweeping account laid bare the failure of overseers to see and the reluctance of leaders to lead.
Kane’s scrutiny prompted the adoption of dozens of reforms – after millions of dollars were spent on an outside investigation and millions more on public relations trying to manage the story and protect UNC’s image. Now there is a chance for what could be a productive dialogue on all college sports, not just the problems in Chapel Hill.
Chapel Hill should lead the nation in this effort. It is, after all, a university that for most of its history in “big time” athletics has been cited as an example of “doing it right,” playing by the rules, demanding high academic standards, citing the high graduation rates of coaches such as the late Dean Smith.
The question Kane’s reporting raises has no definitive answer: Can rigorous academics and big-time athletics really mix? That’s a question that should be pondered by every school that participates in the top level of NCAA athletics. President after president, chancellor after chancellor, has tried to answer the question in the affirmative.
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But it’s not that simple. To make that coexistence really work, major universities know what they need to do: 1. Curb the influence of television by not allowing their schedules to be dictated by TV networks; 2. Consider a return to the policy of not allowing freshmen to play varsity sports; 3. Restrain themselves in the building of stadiums and arenas; 4. Arrange for independent monitoring of the academic-athletics balance – or imbalance – on each campus and don’t leave it to the NCAA, which is a weak organization pressured to preserve a billion-dollar enterprise.
The response to most of these ideas is typically predictable: It’s too late. There’s too much money involved. All schools would have to cooperate, and they won’t. There are scandals, but they are relatively rare.
All are excuses for inaction. The truth is academic administrators would like to agree with at least some of those suggestions, but they understand that to become an advocate for anything that could be interpreted as “downsizing” or “de-emphasis” would put them at odds with powerful alums.
Reformers should not give up, no matter how many times they face the skepticism of those who say they’re not being “realistic.”