The business of big-time college sports is a uniquely American nonsense. Nowhere else are universities expected to entertain the public in such a fashion. There are problems.
A school could solve them, the humorist Max Shulman once wrote, by hiring the Green Bay Packers as “artists in residence.”
They wouldn’t have to pretend to be students. The faculty wouldn’t have to pretend to educate them. The alumni and other fans would be satisfied. Though Shulman was joking, the reality is anything but funny.
They’re not laughing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the nation’s oldest state school and one of its most venerable.
For at least 18 years, thousands of academically challenged athletes and other students gilded their grade-point averages with phony classes that never met and “independent studies” no professor ever supervised. They had only to produce papers that were scored by a secretary, Deborah Crowder, who scarcely bothered to read them and graded them according to what the students needed to stay eligible for athletics or to graduate.
The scheme began to unravel with media inquiries in 2011 that led to the indictment of Crowder’s nominal boss, Dr. Julius Nyang’oro, the chair of the African and Afro-American Studies Curriculum (AFAM), for taking $12,000 to teach a course that never met.
A chancellor and football coach departed and the NCAA imposed mild sanctions. But the enormity of the scandal was revealed only last month in an exhaustive report by Kenneth Wainstain, a former U.S. Justice Department official. The university is now reportedly dismissing or disciplining nine people.
Crowder herself retired before the scandal broke.
Academic counselors for the football team urged players to submit their “papers” before she left and warned the coaches the sham courses were disappearing.
A slide they prepared for the coaches said matter-of-factly, “We put them in classes that met degree requirements in which they didn’t go to class … they didn’t take notes … didn’t have to meet with professors, didn’t have to pay attention or necessarily engage with the material.”
Students of all types took the paper classes, according to Wainstain, of the 3,933 total enrollments, 1,871 were by athletes.
The phony grades averaged significantly higher than those that had been earned honestly in the AFAM curriculum. For 329 students, the paper classes were what put them at or over the critical 2.0 grade-point average for a semester. For 81, it was the margin that allowed them to graduate.
Wainstain said Crowder and Nyang’oro acted out of genuine sympathy for struggling students. There were no such excuses for other university officials, especially in the athletic department, who suspected or knew of the wrongdoing.
Roy Williams, the celebrated basketball coach, became concerned too many athletes were enrolling in the AFAM program. But he didn’t follow where his curiosity should have led him.
The most tragic aspect is the betrayal of athletes and other students who were educated poorly. That shoe has now dropped. Michael McAdoo, a former basketball player, has filed a lawsuit seeking class-action status for himself and other athletes.
How could it have gone on for so long? Wainstain attributes that in part to “some lingering disbelief that such misconduct could have occurred at Chapel Hill,” a school proud of its reputation for excellence in both academics and athletics.
Would anyone care to bet it’s not happening elsewhere? There was a relatively minor incident at Florida State — my alma mater — a few years ago, involving improper assistance in an online examination. FSU forfeited some victories.
No other college presidents or trustees can safely assume it isn’t happening on their watch. So long as big-time athletics demand the impossible, there are bound to be impermissible consequences.
Why do we expect of our universities what it should not be their business to provide? Why do we exploit student-athletes so shamefully?
Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives near Waynesville, North Carolina.