There has been a lot of controversy lately, especially on Tobacco Road with Duke and North Carolina experiencing different types of scandals. For the sake of this post, I'll focus on the UNC issue, particularly because it applies to virtually every major college football and basketball athletic program. In case you missed it, the University of North Carolina has been reeling the last couple of years from revelations that at least one academic department offered what amounted to sham classes that were designed to make it easier for student athletes to maintain their academic eligibility. S.L. Price recently wrote an excellent piece in Sports Illustrated titled "How Did Carolina Lost Its Way?" But Price's article was more of a micro view of the balance between academics and athletics, written from the perspective of an alumnus questioning the long term value of his alma mater's reputation as an institution of higher learning.
However, the issue is much broader and has far more implications than just the legacy of former coach Dean Smith and the University of North Carolina. Every big time program is competing to attract top athletes, make sure they can get admitted to school, assimilate into the population and remain eligible throughout their tenure at the university. I'm going to take these issues one at a time and then wrap them up in one box with a big green bow.
Attracting Talent: In many cases, it doesn't matter as much where the athlete wants to go as it is where his parents or parent thinks gives them the best chance at long term life success. So the recruiter needs to be able to pitch the kid on playing time, chances of getting to the next level and possibilities of winning a championship. The parents want to know if their son or daughter will be treated well, have a good college experience and foremost, get a degree that will set them up for success in whatever endeavor they decide to pursue. Therefore, the promises have to be made that yes, we'll make sure he or she will get their degree. We have tutors, we limit travel days as much as possible, we care about our athletes like family, we know they can make it.
Admitting Talent: The problem many, if not all programs have is that not every great athletic prospect has the same propensity in the classroom. So it's the nature of the business, and yes, it's very much a business, that universities have to make tough decisions on how much they are willing to dilute their academic requirements for the sake of athletic success. Very few schools have the luxury of holding athletes to the same admission requirements as the general student population. The NCAA has minimum standards that all potential college student-athletes need to meet, but those aren't really the issue here. The real issue is how a university deals with the dilemma of admitting someone because of athletic prowess and potential who has perhaps an SAT score of 900 and a 2.3 GPA, when the student population as a whole averages 1050 and 2.8. With coaches making seven figure salaries and athletic budgets approaching eight figures, concessions have to be made.
Assimilation: Until very recently, many scholarship athletes were at not only an academic disadvantage, but an economic one as well. NCAA rules forbid outside employment and any other ways for scholarship athletes to have access to spending money. Add to that the lack of academic skills possessed by a lot of athletes that got a break in the admission process and we end up with the potential for a divide between the two groups. This has manifested itself in a number of problems and disciplinary issues with some scholarship athletes. It also created a divide between the faculty, whose mission is and should be to educate the students, and the athletic program, which generally speaks to making sure kids graduate, but whose only mission is really to win.
Maintaining Eligibility: So if a university student-athlete comes into an environment where they are ill prepared to compete academically yet have demands on their time that are greater than almost every other student, how are they expected to get the grades necessary to keep them eligible to play football, basketball or any other sport, not to mention graduate in a reasonable amount of time? Quite a tall order, I would think. For the few basketball players that will only play a single season before heading to the NBA, it really isn't an issue. They only have to survive twelve hours of freshman classes, make it to the spring semester then shut it down academically. But what about the football players, with practice starting before the academic year begins, then the demands of a twelve to fourteen game schedule, followed in March and April with spring practice, plus off-season conditioning? Or the basketball players with thirty-plus game grinds, including at least one road game per week? Challenging at a minimum, impossible at a maximum.
I don't have a lot of answers, but I know one very important thing: the illusion of academic and athletic balance is clearly that, an illusion. Money has served to make that goal even more of a stretch. Open the hood of any major college athletic program and you're bound to find an engine that fails to hit on all academic cylinders. I'm not proposing that we drop the motor and replace it with a new one. I just want recognition that the system is what it is, which is a revenue generation vehicle for universities to fund their athletic programs. Seriously, have you ever seen a coach hold up a trophy, only to be let
go because his star running back missed a class or two on his way to
gaining 1,500 yards? Only when a coach starts to slip on the field or
court are those issues used as a way to get rid of him.The hypocrisy is so apparent, yet networks, college presidents, conferences and the pro leagues that benefit from all of it are hesitant to call it what it is, apparently for fear that the money spigot will run dry. Nothing to be afraid of though, because as long as the games are entertaining and people like to watch, the dollars will continue to flow.
Don't forget to check out my new book, "Roughing the Passer - A PK
Frazier Novel" and my first, "Illegal Procedure - A PK Frazier Novel",
available in print and e-formats at Amazon.com, iBooks and Smashwords.