October 23, 2014

CHIUSANO | Student or Athlete?

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The University of North Carolina is in the news again. The New York Times reported on Wednesday that “two employees in the university’s Afro-American studies department presided over what was essentially a ‘shadow curriculum’ designed to help struggling students — many of them Tar Heel athletes — stay afloat.”

These accusations originally surfaced three years ago, but the report that came out on Wednesday gave detailed information about the scandal, including the fact that this was all happening from 1993-2011 without anyone doing anything about it. The NCAA initially decided that the scandal was far removed from the athletics program, but it has now “reopened an investigation into the matter,” according to the Times.

Essentially, the two employees involved created fake classes designed to help struggling athletes get by. They were widely acknowledged on campus as “paper classes,” where only a single paper was required, and it usually received an A or B. According to the report and the Times, “counselors in the Academic Support Program for Student Athletes explicitly told [the two employees] what grades students needed to ‘remain academically or athletically eligible.’” An email from the academic counselor for the women’s basketball team to Deborah Crowder — one of the employees in question — read: “Yes, a D will be fine; that’s all she needs…Thanks for whatever you can do.” The story is dripping with irony — counselor, Jan Boxill, is currently the director of the University’s Parr Center for Ethics.

North Carolina is certainly not the only school involved in this kind of shady business. Schools across the country have subtle ways of helping their athletes get by, even through classes with a stigma of being perennially easy (take a class that has garnered the infamous name “Rocks for Jocks” as an example). This doesn’t seem to be the problem, though. Every college student looks for a shortcut at some point in their four years; this isn’t just limited to student-athletes. A pre-med student forced to take a humanities course tends to look for an easy one. An English major forced to take a science class might find him or herself in “Rocks for Jocks” as well.

A line needs to be drawn somewhere, though, and that starts in the relationships between an academic counselor and a professor (or in the UNC case, an administrator). Once a student-athlete’s academic counselor begins contacting a professor or administrator, something has gone wrong. There should be no interchange between the two, because their jobs are inherently separate. These counselors should be helping student-athletes pick classes. They should be helping them to manage their schedules. They should be telling them when it’s necessary to go speak with their professors. And professors — as most do — should have enough integrity in the subject they are teaching not to entertain the idea of an academic counselor meddling in the progress of one of their students.

Much like Cornell, North Carolina is a University of high academic standing. Cornell’s football coach, a former player who graduated in 2005 and worked for Teach For America after college, has stressed from his first press conferences that the student in student-athlete comes first. The Sun’s sports section featured last year’s men’s track and field captains, all of them engineers. Two female runners were named Marshall Scholars last spring. Many of our teams boast collective GPAs well above 3.0. Though there are most certainly exceptions to this, it seems like our athletic program is cultivating the right atmosphere in which student-athletes can and are expected to thrive academically.

So what is preventing UNC, also a prestigious university, from doing the same? I think the answer brings us back to the O’Bannon vs. NCAA lawsuit. UNC and some of its counterparts like Duke, Notre Dame and Wisconsin, despite being strong academic schools, are still factories for players trying to make it professionally. These athletic programs generate important revenue for the school, so if athletes can’t keep up academically to remain eligible, that revenue takes a hit. Many of the players on the UNC basketball team are not there to go to school, but to win an NCAA championship and proceed to the NBA.

With a school like UNC, that for years has been a contender for that championship, it’s inevitable that the team will gather a cultish following from both students and administrators. Crowder was an avid UNC basketball fan and, according to CNN.com, “she would sometimes miss work after a loss.” Clearly the line between fan and administrator was blurred for Ms. Crowder. This sort of intermingling becomes possible at universities where athletics transcend simple school spirit and border on an obsessive drive to be the best.

Maybe when the NCAA figures out how collegiate athletes on the brink of professional careers fit into an actual college setting, schools like UNC can put the student back in student-athlete.