Chapel Hill: Opinion

Terri Buckner: Fraud scandal unfairly taints all athletes

As UNC faculty and N.C. State fans debate the future of UNC athletics while waiting for the NCAA and The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to decide on their next steps, one group of individuals is caught in the middle: the student athletes.

I’m not going to defend the practice of making fake classes available; there is no defense. But I do wish to defend our student athletes and put the “era of corruption,” as one columnist called it, into perspective.

I’ve counted 746 students on the rosters of 26 officially sanctioned university sports. Some of those athletes are receiving scholarships, and others are playing for love of their sport. Very few, less than 1 percent, are predicted to obtain a professional contract.

Assuming that most teams lose about one-quarter of their players each year to graduation, roughly 370 of those athletes have enrolled over the past two years, after the paper classes were eliminated. They could not have participated even once in the fake classes. And yet, to read the news reports and opinion pieces, it would be easy to believe that all student athletes at UNC are dependent on fake classes in order to stay academically eligible to play their sport. That impression is grossly unfair to the majority of hardworking, intelligent young athletes. They have become the collateral damage in a scandal they had no part in.

The Wainstein report claims that over 18 years, 3,100 students enrolled in the fake classes, out of 97,600 undergraduates who were admitted to the University in that time frame. That’s 3 percent of all students who were enrolled in one or more of the fake classes. A quick read through the emails posted with the Wainstein report makes it very clear that some of 3 percent registered in those classes took their assignments seriously and were graded by full-time faculty members.

Of those 3 percent who were involved with the paper classes, less than half were athletes. In other words, this scandal, which is prompting calls for dire punishments, such as revoking degrees and accreditation and eliminating all sports programs, benefited fewer than 1,500 student athletes. That’s roughly 1.5 percent of the student body. Without a doubt, 1,500 is too many, but in proportion to the student body, it’s a very small involvement.

Where is the justice in explicitly or implicitly punishing all student athletes for the wrongs committed by the few? Especially when that behavior was not just condoned but directed by the adults who these students depended on to guide them through their academic careers? I’ve read enough comments to know that some feel the students who were enrolled in those courses failed to take responsibility for themselves, a claim that may be true for some but not for all. Anyone who has ever worked with freshmen knows they are too overwhelmed by the college experience to question authority.

I believe the vast majority of student athletes are honest, hardworking individuals. They came to the university as teenagers and will leave as adults, prepared to start careers and families across the state and the nation. Coloring their futures with generalizations as to their honesty and intelligence is a huge disservice to them and their current and future families.

My purpose here is not to defend the athletics or academic programs that set up this scandal. Nor is it my intent to trivialize the problem created by the fake classes. My purpose is to separate the individual athletes from the accusations and innuendos that are being leveled at the university, regardless of what punishments accrue to the institution. Let justice be served, just not on the backs of innocents.