An age ago – late fall, 1955, to be exact – I entangled myself in the continuing saga of athletic excess at UNC.
As editor of the student newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel, I wrote an editorial blasting the dismissal of the football coach, George Barclay, the latest victim of a losing season. The appointment of Barclay’s successor, Jim Tatum, a UNC alumnus, had not yet been announced – that would occur during the Christmas holidays – and was closely held because Tatum’s football program at the University of Maryland was under NCAA sanction.
I had spotted the trouble earlier. Descending the long Graham Memorial stairs from our second-floor offices one day, I saw Barclay pacing up and down in the lobby below, looking very unhappy. I asked our sports editor to investigate. He did, and we broke the story.
Barclay’s firing was another stride in the commercialization of college sport, of which the Daily Tar Heel had long been critical. Indeed, the election of my friend and colleague Charles Kuralt as editor the year before was in doubt until he promised a student political caucus that there would be no more criticism of “big-time football.” This preoccupation with victory at any cost underscored the “winning is everything” creed that governs college “revenue” sports. But the mildly professionalized games of that day hardly hold a candle to the athletic-industrial colossus of the ESPN era.
Our editorial protest infuriated lovers of big-time sports, who were and are many. The sting was sharpened by a smarty-pants observation by Time magazine that student editors at Chapel Hill were wiser than UNC administrators: a self-evident absurdity. My associate Louis Kraar and I soon faced a “recall” election under an obscure mechanism in the student constitution. Happily, the student body was sophisticated enough to discern an issue of press freedom in the furor and voted to sustain our regime 2-1. Even Tatum gamely endorsed his callow critics. So far as I know, the affair had no lasting effect.
Professionalized college sport, ever more thinly disguised, remains – now swollen by television revenues that were not a factor 60 years ago. Stakes in the billions have magnified the distortions of academic integrity endemic to the system. The dodges of “revenue” sports are often excused as essential to the funding of minor sports. But if unprofitable sports are worth playing and have educational value, and they certainly do, why shouldn’t universities fund them out of regular sources – including the deep pockets that finance pricey legal advice and are funding ever-growing layers of administrative bureaucracy?
UNC’s phony-course scandal is one symptom of a deeply compromised system. For nearly two decades, the university maintained a crip “African studies” curriculum whose apparent purpose was to enhance the grade point averages of academically challenged varsity athletes. To charge, as has the NCAA, that bogus courses evaded “institutional control” is comic understatement, as is its weasel-word characterization as “anomalous.”
No UNC administrator since Bill Friday has exercised “institutional control” over the sprawling and autonomous UNC athletic complex. Friday’s successors have instead paid pricey lawyers versed in the defense of monkey business. They have devised the dodgy response that gross irregularity is outside the NCAA’s jurisdiction. But if bogus courses designed to assist underachieving athletes is not NCAA business, what would be? Free whiskey for the ladies’ field hockey teams?
The superstition persists that critics of sports abuses are effete eggheads and couch potatoes animated by envy of genuine jocks. It is nonsense, as I recently told a pudgy prof from medical hill who voiced this familiar canard at a campus breakfast. I offered to send him a long list of the first-rate athletes I have known who were also accomplished scholars. He seemed uninterested. He clearly didn’t want the “envy” premise compromised by facts.
Does it really matter whether UNC’s evasions defeat the NCAA’s irresolute enforcers? If clever legalism further enfeebles a regulatory body that often seems to function as a front for timid college administrators bossed by overpaid athletic directors, so be it. The damage is to the integrity of UNC and disheartening to any and all who value its traditions and honor system.
The victim of this wound is UNC, and it is self-inflicted.
Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington.