It is a scandal beyond the University of North Carolina (UNC), although for the moment, that school is the focus. College athletics are big business, and often the ones being short-changed are the very athletes it seeks to benefit. While the lawsuit recently filed by players at Northwestern University at least raises the legal side of compensation for these money-making players, the scandal at UNC shows just how flimsy the justification is by universities that college athletes receive fair compensation via the degrees they earn without paying for.
The Chapel Hill scandal blows that argument out of the water. Long a “storied academic and basketball powerhouse,” in the words of Bloomberg Businessweek, “the emptiness—and the exploitation—arise from this hard reality: While athletes in revenue-generating sports may have a shot at a degree, the education they receive all too often amounts to a fraud.”
Classes a sham
While the average University of North Carolina student walks away from his or her college years with a bankable degree, for athletes the focus is largely on producing the athletic gains, not the academic ones. So much so, that UNC took the idea of a phantom education to extremes.
In part this academic scandal was exposed by Bryant Gumbel on HBO and by the News & Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina, as well as a whistleblower tutor on the campus of UNC. What they were able to show is that UNC athletes were directed by athletic department personnel to take fake classes to meet their academic requirements. In fact, hundreds of these fake lecture courses designed only for athletes never met at all. These classes, many of which were in the African-American Studies Department, according to Sporting News, were a sham.
Two former UNC athletes, football players Michael McAdoo and Bryon Bishop, freely admitted on HBO to allowing themselves to be manipulated thus. They share in the blame: No one forced them to take sham classes, but they took the easy way out. As for UNC, which refused to participate in the HBO program, it chose to offer up PR spin or in the words of Businessweek, “obfuscation,” over dealing with the harsh truth.
Is it really any surprise that this sort of academic scandal runs rampant, not just at UNC, but at many schools affiliated with the National College Athletic Association (NCAA)? One need only look at a single number—a $16 billion a year business—to see the potential for fraud would be tempting. Where there is the potential for a big piece of the financial pie, temptation surely follows. But are taxpayers willing to support such a dishonest system? Who is really benefiting here? Surely not the athletes, many of whom will never earn a real living from playing athletics professionally, many of whom graduate with a average sixth-grade reading level.
It’s clear that the university and the NCAA would prefer to look the other way, rather than to investigate these claims in depth and correct a problem that seems to be more widespread than simply UNC. To date, no one in the athletics department at UNC has been investigated or punished.