I’ve talked before about the mix of pleasure and guilt I derive from college sports. All too often, they’re the tail that wags the dog, whether because of TV and licensing money at the higher levels or because of the reliance on athletes to prop up enrollment numbers (and income from grants, room/board, and the like) at places like Mondoville. But at the same time, there’s enough atavistic tribalism for me to take pleasure in the competition on behalf of my alma maters, and at Mondoville, I genuinely like the kids and like to watch them do stuff they enjoy, whether I’m at a ballgame or at the college musical (which I went to last night — the keyboardist from the Berries directed, and one of my favorite students played a lead role. Toward those two, I feel paternalistic.)
As I’ve mentioned before, I did my M.A. at the U of Kentucky, which has a reputation for successful basketball, but also a reputation for cheating over the years. And given its current head coach, who (fairly or not) has a shady reputation, this is unlikely to change. (At this point, I must note that there’s really no need for Coach Calipari to cheat to get the best players, any more than there is a need for Harvard to cheat to entice top academic students. The people who complain that Kentucky players are one-and-done mercenaries have a larger issue with the NBA’s rules than with Calipari’s recruiting, whether they know it or not.) Years ago, occasional commenter and former UK star Bret Bearup described Kentucky’s conference, the SEC, as being “the Wild West” when it came to recruiting and other rules issues. But the corruption isn’t that localized.
Case in point: The ongoing scandal at the University of North Carolina (another basketball power) has taken a fresh turn. While reporters had unearthed various records that indicated academic skulduggery in Chapel Hill, Mary Willingham, a reading specialist at Carolina, has gone to the press. She describes a culture of academic dishonesty in the University, particularly with regard to the “revenue sports” of basketball and football. (How much revenue these sports bring to the academic side of a university — as opposed to the entertainment arm that is athletics — is open for argument, but that’s dirty laundry for another time.) From the Raleigh News & Observer:
• The no-show classes that had been offered by the chairman of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies date back at least to the time Willingham began working for the support program in 2003. Commonly known within the program as “paper classes,” they were billed as lecture classes, but the classes never met.
Willingham learned of them when she was asked to work with a female athlete on a paper. Willingham said the paper was a “cut-and-paste” job, but when she raised questions about it, staff members told her not to worry. The student later received a grade of B or better.
• Members of the men’s basketball team took no-show classes until the fall semester of 2009, when the team was assigned a new academic counselor. The new counselor was appalled to learn of the classes, and wanted no part of them. University records show the enrollments stopped that semester for basketball players, while they continued for football players.
• Numerous football and basketball players came to the university with academic histories that showed them incapable of doing college-level work, especially at one of the nation’s top public universities. Diagnostic tests administered by the university confirmed their lack of preparedness and also identified learning disabilities that would need extensive remediation to put them on a successful academic path.
Some athletes told Willingham they had never read a book or written a paragraph, but they were placed in no-show classes that required a 20-page paper and came away with grades of B or better.
In addition to going public, Willingham wrote her M.A. thesis on the corruption of big-time college sport, and has started a blog, which I commend to your attention. As you give it a read, remember that UNC has maintained a reputation as one of the nation’s top public universities — a reputation which has been used for years to give big-time college sports a wholesome image.
In my own small way, as a fan of UK and other schools I’ve attended, I know I’m part of the problem — I’m wearing a UK t-shirt as I type this. But I can at least acknowledge the problem exists, and I can praise Ms. Willingham for shining a light on it.