While the actual "student-athlete" may have died a long time ago, the conceit somehow lives on. As college athletics has grown in popularity and profitability, the NCAA quietly killed the student-athlete and replaced him with an evil twin brother. It used to be a ringer was a guy who had no connection to a team, he was just really good and was used to win a game. Now the ringers are the teams. That's not a bad thing—the play on the field, court, or whatever playing surface you like, speaks for itself—it's just not the illusion the NCAA is selling. That's what makes the focus on the University of North Carolina and the current academic scandal hard to swallow. It is not itself a disease, but a symptom of a much larger one.
The News & Observer has been banging the drum on this one for some time and recently spoke with a Chapel Hill reading specialist, Mary Willingham, who worked closely with UNC athletes. Among other things, Willingham asserts she met with students who did not understand the concept of a paragraph, students who had never read a book and, it goes without saying, students who "were unable to do college-level work." Willingham recounts issues with cheating and plagiarism and a basic inability to function as a college student—even in classes specifically designed to make it impossible for athletes to fail. All this, she asserts was enabled by the administration and academic and athletic departments at North Carolina.
None of this is a surprise. We all know this goes on. Whether it's the Tostito's Fiesta Bowl, or the various "corporate champions" associated with the men's basketball tournament, the NCAA and its partners (e.g., pictured above) have created an environment where relevance matters. And the only way to be relevant is to be better than the next school. The only way to be better than the next school is to get the most talent, and make sure that talent can play. The NCAA is the petri dish that allows a school like UNC to thrive.
"There are serious literacy deficits and they cannot do the course work here," Willingham said. "And if you cannot do the course work here, how do you stay eligible? You stay eligible by some department, some professor, somebody who gives you a break. That's everywhere across the country. Here it happened with paper classes. There's no question."
It is everywhere, but somehow it is the individual schools that are taken to task in these long, drawn out investigations, which only serves to further the problem that needs fixing. Soon enough, UNC could face sanctions (though initially it did not) for this ongoing scandal by the very body that created it and then this, too, will pass. Then maybe in a year or two, some other school's fraud will be uncovered and meet the same fate. And so on. It wouldn't be so galling if everyone could just agree that the student-athlete is a fiction. But that's not as quaint as the ideal of the great athlete who is also a great student. And so, the NCAA will remain, lording over college athletics as some shadow government, subjecting its constituents to its particularly arbitrary form of justice. Until someone has had enough with the petty criminals and decides to bring Robespierre to the guillotine.
UNC tolerated cheating, says insider Mary Willingham [News & Observer]