Luke DeCock

DeCock: UNC experience raises old questions about compatibility of college athletics, academics

The morning after facing up to an investigation into academic fraud at the University of North Carolina that was considerably less than flattering, Tom Ross and Carol Folt sat in a boardroom at The News & Observer and faced the uncomfortable question that underlies this entire mess.

Is excellence in big-time intercollegiate athletics fundamentally compatible with academic excellence at a national research university?

Despite going through an ordeal generally described as “painful,” Ross, the UNC system president, and Folt, the chancellor in Chapel Hill, both insisted that major-conference intercollegiate athletics have a place on campus. Folt included athletics as a critical component of the “unique American university,” that’s as much a community as a learning institution.

“The question for me,” Folt said, “is not do we get rid of athletics, but how do we make it successful and help them succeed?”

Here’s another question: Once you start admitting students to be something other than students, are the lofty goals of a research institution not inherently perverted?

Big-time athletics introduces variables into the campus equation that cannot be controlled. A single person, or small group of people, can break rules for their own purposes and tarnish the reputation of the entire university in the process.

If it leads to a coach on an agent’s payroll, or students who willfully break rules, how do you stop that? You can try, but there’s no guarantee. It’s all part of the bargain.

That’s what big-time athletics brings to the table, along with the community connection to the university and all the fundraising opportunities football and basketball can offer. There’s a price to be paid for that, and that price is risking a university’s academic reputation and integrity on behalf of its athletic success.

Academic hand-wringing aside, intercollegiate athletics aren’t getting any smaller as long as the television networks have open checkbooks, but as the entire industry enters a period of transition, driven by NCAA autonomy and multiple lawsuits and labor actions, under the growing threat of congressional or IRS intervention, the best path forward remains unclear.

You can turn down the volume and do things the Ivy League way. Or the Davidson way, the Campbell way. But the only way that big-time, major-conference athletics makes financial sense is if your revenue teams are successful more often than not. Otherwise they’re a tremendous drain on the university, emotionally and financially. North Carolina’s experience argues there’s no way to be successful at that elite level without balancing on an ethical precipice.

If questionable admissions are what it takes to get the athletes needed to be competitive in a power conference such as the ACC, such corner-cutting inherently invites the kind of corruption that took root at North Carolina.

“It’s not an easy fix,” Ross said. “Neither is it something a great university can’t handle. It’s incumbent upon us to make it happen.”

What independent investigator Kenneth Wainstein outlined Wednesday runs deep: A shortcut to athletic success at the expense of academic integrity, doing things the easy way, shuttling academically unqualified athletes along the path of least resistance for decades.

If it can happen at North Carolina, it can happen anywhere. Just because academic behemoths such as Duke and Stanford and Northwestern have apparently managed to do things the right way doesn’t mean this kind of cancer can’t lurk somewhere on campus, nurtured by the desperate quest for athletic success despite the best intentions.

Five years ago, North Carolina would have demanded inclusion in that group. Now, it’s the national example of what not to do. The challenge now is whether North Carolina can become the national example of how to put athletics in their proper place going forward. It’s the only way the university can redeem itself.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer