The latest reports on UNC’s academic-athletic scandal reveal that implicated faculty members Jan Boxill has been fired and Tim McMillan has resigned. Boxill, a philosophy professor who had served in many distinguished roles including Faculty Council chair, was also director of the UNC Parr Center for Ethics and the author of books on sports ethics, race and gender. McMillan, faculty in African American Studies, was the guide for the popular “Black and Blue” campus walking tours that reveal the racial history of the nation’s first public university – a university open only to whites for the first 160 years – and illustrate how our past informs our present.
So how has our past contributed to the present-day scandal? How have two well-regarded faculty members – with nothing to gain personally – been exposed as malfeasants within an institution they clearly loved?
Even as some within UNC hope that their departure will allow us to “move on” and others believe that more heads should roll, I think there is a bigger picture that we are choosing to ignore. A friend often says, “If you see one or two fish floating in a lake, you wonder what happened to those fish, but when more and more float belly up, you have to wonder about the lake.”
UNC’s scandal is one of many nationwide, each unique only in the details. It’s no secret that the last 50 years have seen the development of a vast sports industrial complex involving NCAA Division I teams – a growing business that generates billions of dollars for universities, corporations and the NCAA, largely from the athletic performances of uncompensated men of color.
The profit-making potential from marketable college sports has lured institutions of higher education into compromising their highest values in exchange for the advantages gained by looking the other way. The millions of dollars that flow from football and basketball are used in part to fund scholarships for non-revenue producing sports like tennis, lacrosse and swimming, where athletes tend to be white and affluent.
When we think of our past creating this present, it’s not hard to see how this has happened. U.S. history is replete with examples of lofty ideals that we ignore in order to enjoy economic gains from the labor of those we have marginalized.
Some say that grade scandals involving athletes could be prevented by increasing efforts to ensure that student-athletes’ education is the highest priority for faculty, staff, and coaches. This solution is problematic in a society like ours that devalues the educational talents of black males.. Racial achievement gaps exist in school systems nationwide, with African American boys at the bottom of the barrel. With a national history that justified the exploitation and mistreatment of black people by claiming that they were intellectually inferior and prone to criminal behavior, it is no wonder that multiple studies have documented teachers’ low expectations for black student achievement and disproportionately harsh discipline beginning as early as preschool.
We believe that the “free” education offered to black athletes is a gift, not acknowledging how many scholarship students come to the university unable to capitalize on the educational opportunities because they stopped believing in their scholastic competence years earlier. Additionally, more than half the income-generating NCAA athletes come from families who live in poverty and struggle with the incidental expenses of being a student, even while on scholarship. Under NCAA regulations, they cannot accept dinners, gas money, or rides to an airport without risking eligibility or team sanctions. Often they cannot even afford to travel home for a visit.
The contaminated lake producing “scandals” in universities across the country is an entrenched system supported by the belief that more money for sports not only supports great athletic programs but also raises the stature of the university. Fans and alumni don’t want to do anything that would change or end our enjoyment of watching our favorite teams. And unconscious racism blinds us from seeing how we are exploiting men who’ve been socialized to put their hopes into athletic dreams that only have a small chance of securing a secure future for themselves and their families.
Institutions rarely examine the structural causes of problems but seek ways to place individual blame. At UNC, attempts to fix blame have gone on for years, starting with football players who accepted “favors.” But the problem hasn’t gone away because the problem never originated in individual athletes, academic support personnel, faculty, coaches, or one department.
The “scandal” at UNC is not a scandal because university personnel were caught offering unearned academic credentials but because UNC, like all other schools making big money off their sports teams, refuses to acknowledge its culpability in compromising its educational mission while exploiting young athletes recruited for their potential to advance the school’s economic gain. The college sports industrial complex is big business. The good news is once we admit this system does more harm than good, we can reject or reform it and return to our real mission for higher education. If what we really want is televised sports, let’s be honest about it and share the financial rewards with the young athletes who work so hard to win games for their teams and fans.
Wanda Hunter is a long-time resident of Chapel Hill. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.