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George Leef looks back at the UNC athletics scandal

George Leef writes for the James G. Martin Center about former Daily Tar Heel editor Andy Thomason’s new book, Discredited: The UNC Scandal and College Athletics’ Amateur Ideal. Here’s an excerpt:

A series of investigations revealed the unsavory truth about collaboration between the Athletics Department and certain elements of the faculty to ensure that players remained eligible no matter how weak their academic performance. The African and African-American Studies Department was the guiltiest party, although Mary Willingham offered the opinion that many faculty members were afraid to give players bad grades. UNC’s administration feared terrible penalties would come from the NCAA and perhaps also the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), the organization that provides accreditation for the university.

(It’s worth noting that the deep academic integrity problems that the investigations revealed had gone undetected by SACS, which would lead one to question how much good it and other accreditation bodies are.)

But instead of severe penalties, UNC got off with a slap on the wrist from the NCAA, some loss of scholarships, and a one-year ban on post-season play. SACS did nothing.

Leef doesn’t say it, but I will. The watchdogs, the integrity failsafes the systems — athletics and academics — relied on, chose not to uphold their standards in this egregious case but instead decided that UNC was “too big to fail.” UNC athletics was too lucrative to the NCAA, and the UNC name was too prestigious for SACS. So they decided to hold their fire and “make an example” of schools with lesser pull for merchandise sales and TV audiences.

Leef does recount this:

Unfortunately, most people will think that if UNC has made it impossible for another scandal to happen, then all is well. The school will still admit academically weak football and basketball players, but now they won’t slide through on fake courses and with illegitimate help from tutors. They won’t be Cheated out of an education (to borrow the title of the 2015 book on the scandal by Professor Jay Smith and Mary Willingham) so the critics should just move along. Nothing more to see here.

Even with UNC’s reforms (assuming that the Athletics Department doesn’t find ways around them), the football and basketball teams in particular will still have many academically marginal players who are far behind most of their classmates in basic reading and math. Can those individuals really gain much ground educationally when they have to devote so much time and energy to their sports?

Professor Jasmine Harris of Ursinus College writes here that she believes it is naïve to think that athletes have time for their coursework. Her research, she says, shows that Division I football and basketball players “spend three times as many hours per week on athletics as they do on academics.” Therefore, Harris continues, athletes “aren’t able to fully actualize their identities as students to the same degree as their classmates.”

Those students are the ones who need to devote significantly more time to academics if they are to advance equally with other students, but instead they put in much less.

If you care about academic integrity, read the whole piece.

Jon Sanders / Research Editor and Senior Fellow, Regulatory Studies

Jon Sanders studies regulatory policy, a veritable kudzu of invasive government and unintended consequences. As director of regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation, Jo...