Might as well make this a teachable moment. The term “Pyrrhic victory” comes from King Pyrrhus of Epirus, who, in the course of fighting the Romans in 280 B.C. in the Battle of Heraclea and then in the Battle of Asculum the next year (both part of the Pyrrhic War), lost so many troops that the wins were really losses. Hence, the term means a victory that proved more costly than it was worth.
And this teachable moment, friends, isn’t brought to you just by some C student/newspaper guy. This is right from Plutarch and Dionysius. That’s big time. That’s tenured faculty kind of stuff. And it’s not fake news, either. Came right from Wikipedia.
The essential absolution of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill athletics program of serious wrongdoing related to fake classes may have prompted outrage on the part of big hitters in sports journalism and other observers appalled by the NCAA’s exoneration of Big Blue. But surprise? Really? Did these highly disturbed scribes now all keyed up over the NCAA’s timid and tepid reaction to the Chapel Hill case really not anticipate it? C’mon.
College sports is a multibillion-dollar industry, and the Tar Heels of North Carolina, particularly the basketball Tar Heels, are what’s called a revenue-producing asset. At one time, reports were that Tar Heel memorabilia was at the top nationwide in sales. Then there’s Jordan Inc., shorthand for the industry that is one man ... who happens to be the greatest basketball player who ever strode Franklin Street.
So sure. The university managed to handle the fake classes fiasco in the worst possible way, driving up the casualties in terms of its reputation – hence the reference to ol’ Pyrrhus – but in the end, the NCAA, governing body of college athletics (insert guffaws and yawns here), patted everybody on the head and said, “See you at the Final Four!”
Wrote Marc Tracy of The New York Times: “The NCAA did not dispute that the University of North Carolina was guilty of running one of the worst academic fraud schemes in college sports history, involving fake classes that enabled dozens of athletes to gain and maintain their eligibility.”
But really, the comment that zinged this alum the most was one quoted in a national story that ran in The N&O, from Jason Kirk at SB Nation: “Sure, they took a shotgun to their academic credibility, but hey, those championship banners get to stay. The truth is, alums probably care more about hoops anyway.”
No sir. Nossir. Oh, I’ve run into a few fellow alums who convinced themselves it was all made up, but most of the ones I know rightly admired, even if they were pained by, the fine work of my colleague Dan Kane, who pursued this story in a fair, precise fashion. And the accuracy of his work was underlined by no less than the findings of Washington attorney Kenneth Wainstein, whose $3 million investigation confirmed much of what Dan reported.
The NCAA’s infractions committee found that since the classes the athletes took in pursuit of good grades were also available to other students, there was no problem. But let’s not equate that with a Papal blessing, OK?
So far, the university has reacted in a pretty sober fashion, as it should. A lot of the damage done to UNC-Chapel Hill, after all, was self-inflicted by boosters and leaders who wanted to believe this was all a public relations problem. The university could have saved itself embarrassment and probably millions of dollars if it had fully acknowledged the problems as it should have – it’s owned by the people, after all – and laid everything out in the open from the beginning. Had it done so, this would be a memory by now. A bad one, but a memory.
But now, it lingers in the insults of others who say UNC alums care only about hoops. That’s wrong. But we know how the fellows felt way back when they told themselves they really did whip those Romans.
Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at firstname.lastname@example.org