Tar Heel Gladiators

Pride goeth before a fall, and one of the proudest academic institutions in America has just taken a belly flop of epic proportions. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill prides itself on being the oldest public university in the nation, founded 1789, a top academic school that also fields top athletic teams and has often boasted that you could do both without either suffering.

Now a gigantic scandal reveals that over the course of 18 years from 1993 to 2011 the school admitted athletes incapable of doing college work and systemically contrived to track them through so-called “paper classes” which required no attendance, no tests and only one paper to get a high grade in order to raise their GPA and remain eligible for sports. As if that weren’t enough, a high percentage of the papers were either written by others or plagiarized, and in any case were never read and graded by a faculty member.

Gerald Gurney of the Drake Group that polices athletic infractions in higher education neatly sums up the UNC scam as “the largest and most nefarious scandal in the history of NCAA enforcement…involving counselors, coaches, academic administrators, faculty, athletic administrators.”

So far only four employees have been fired and five others disciplined, yet the number involved must have been far larger. A minimum of 3,100 students were participants, a number that dwarfs previous scandals at less “prestigious” schools such as Florida State where 60 students were involved in a 2009 case.

The open secret is that big-time college sports does this sort of thing constantly. It’s built on it. Student athletes without the ability or preparation to do academic work at a university level are recruited, the school uses them to gain luster, attract other students and donations and then sends them away with worthless degrees or none at all. As Dolly Parton said, “it’s all takin’ and no givin’.”

But Chapel Hall always pretended to be better than that. It turns out it wasn’t. It was worse. A separate study earlier this year discovered that 60 percent of Chapel Hill basketball and football athletes (the money players, that is) between 2004 and 2012 could read at only a 4th grade to 8th grade level and another 8 percent at a 3rd grade or lower level.

Yet all the while Chapel Hill was claiming the contrary. It recently boasted that only 4 of 163 first year athletes admitted in 2013 failed to meet minimum admission requirements, but those standards surely assume a higher than 8th grade reading ability. It also claimed 73% of student athletes were graduating and that they averaged a 2.93 GPA.

Obviously funny math is involved. Some of those student athletes were presumably academically gifted golfers, tennis players and other dilettantes while many of the players in major sports were being guided to phony classes and worthless majors in order to cash in on their athletic talent without requiring the school to do the hard work of remediating their shortcomings.

Such exploitation and short-changing would be bad enough in any case, but many of these athletes are surely African-American since the scam was run out of the African-American Studies department. This would be embarrassing enough for any school, but leaves a particularly bad taste coming from (eight percent African-American) Chapel Hill whose own racial history is rather unfortunate.

Much of the early campus that still stands was constructed by slave labor. Much of the early funding for the school came from a novel scheme. In good Southern fashion, rather than appropriate tax revenues for the school, the legislature gave the school the right to revenues from the sale of estates of North Carolinians who died intestate. Not only were farms and cattle and plows auctioned off to fund the school, but so were slaves. And along with tuition, students for a half-century paid a fee to have a slave clean their room, light their fire, fetch and carry. Today they pay an athletic fee to fund the teams.

One would have thought and hoped that those days were long gone, but this scandal suggests old habits die hard. The school created an equally novel scheme whereby it got first rate performance and reflected glory from star athletes and they got to dodge education, to remain illiterate, and, in the immortal words of “On the Waterfront,” a one-way ticket to Palookavlle.

Because, let’s face it, the number of student athletes who manage to make it to a payday in the pros is under two percent. Most never earn a dime from their talents, while the University takes in about $80 million a year in ticket sales, rights and other revenues. It makes you proud.

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