Villanova just beat North Carolina to win the NCAA men’s basketball championship. Both teams had three pointers right at the end, but Villanova hit one at the buzzer to win.
In the wake of the massive academic fraud scandal involving athletics, the University of North Carolina’s main campus at Chapel Hill has been put on probation for one year by its accreditor. While this punishment sounds pretty light, there probably isn’t much else that the accreditor can do short of outright revoking accreditation. Regardless, this is hugely embarrassing for a major university like UNC and seems entirely deserved. Still no word yet on what the NCAA is going to do. Some people in the comments are also pointing out that there could be further consequences if the Department of Education finds that federal funds were misused.
The Chronicle of Higher Education has an op-ed piece by the director of a research institute at UNC on her ideas of how to fix the problems with college sports. Unfortunately, I don’t find it to be very convincing. The author argues for allowing varsity athletes to get a degree in sports/athletics. This seems to me to be one of the worst possible ways to fix things. Instead of working to reduce the amount of money in athletics and strengthen incentives/requirements to actually educate athletes in revenue-generating sports, this sounds like giving up on ever fixing anything. The suggestions for special classes for athletes are more or less what led to the recent problems at UNC in the first place. When athletics becomes the primary focus of part of an academic department (i.e. the school part of school), there are huge incentives to reduce the rigor of the classes (or even get rid of the class altogether except on paper) to keep athletes eligible, no matter how academically unprepared or uninvolved they are.
I strongly suspect that giving athletes more than token credit for things like weightlifting would lead to schools giving lip service to the idea of this as a class while treating this simply as another part of practice. Does anyone really expect students at a major Division I football team to learn physiology from team weightlifting? The whole idea sounds preposterous.
Equally troubling is the focus on things like licensing, leadership, experiential learning and others. These are basically all just buzzwords being used to justify handing credit to varsity athletes while asking for nothing in return other than performance on the field. Nothing in the article sounds as if these sports majors would offer the kind of rigorous, coherent curricula that are found in traditional academic fields.
The author’s comparisons of art to sports are not really apt. Arts students typically don’t get the kinds of perks that varsity athletes at major programs get and also don’t get the kinds of huge breaks in admissions that are especially common in football and basketball. Furthermore, the arts hold a very different position in our culture compared to sports. Arts are seen as an intellectual pursuit and as part of a millennia-old cultural tradition. Sports are seen more as mass entertainment or even martial training, but not as intellectual exercises. The revenue-generating sports of football and basketball have only existed in something like their current forms for 100 years. In other words, the arts are part of what we might call “high culture” while sports are part of low or vulgar (in the sense of “common”) culture. This distinction may be arbitrary, but it does exist. Even in the arts, for example, classical music is regarded by most as more academic or intellectual than Top 40 radio. In writing, there is the difference between literary fiction and pulp fiction. The high culture variants of the arts are seen as worthy of academic study while the mass-market versions are often not. There are certainly many things about things like sports or pop music that are worthy of study, but that doesn’t mean that we should hand degrees for playing football, passably singing a pop song written by someone else, or writing a trashy romance novel.
The college basketball season is almost over, so the bracket for the NCAA Division I tournament has been available for the last couple days. Games start a couple days from now, so if you want to fill out a bracket, there’s not much time left to do it. This year’s tournament comes amidst increasing amounts of scrutiny and criticism being applied to college sports in general and the revenue-generating sports of basketball and football in particular.
The University of North Carolina has finally released its report on its long-standing investigation into fraudulent classes offered through the African-American Studies department, and it’s pretty damning. The school offered fake classes to thousands of students – nearly half of them athletes – and gave them A’s and B’s for almost no work or in some cases, literally no work. It was orchestrated largely by an administrative assistant who also changed bad grades without the knowledge of professors. Additionally, the department chair knew so it wasn’t just a rogue admin. This was all done with the full knowledge and complicity of the athletics department, which pushed students, particularly in football and basketball, into these classes. The athletics department was even concerned that these classes would disappear when the administrator retired and pressured the department to keep going.
It also turns out that the classes involved were both fake independent studies and fake lectures. Some non-athletes who signed up for classes were actually interested and were thus denied the opportunity to learn about those subjects. However, as such a huge number of students were involved, many students already knew that the classes were fraudulent and took them just for the free boost to their GPA. Fraternities were particularly involved. The report also makes it clear that much of the department’s faculty were totally unaware of what was going on and, to the extent that they were aware, were furious. That a formerly-segregated public university in the south would end up with these fake classes in the African American studies department is particularly appalling. This casts doubt on the legitimacy of everyone in the department even though it is also clear that there are plenty of real classes available as well – while the athletes were nearly half of the students in the fake classes, they were less than 10% of students in normal classes in that department.
Deadspin has a copy of the report if you want to read the whole thing.
While UNC will obviously need to continue to take action to correct these problems, the massive scale of this fraud also calls for intervention by outside parties. The accrediting body, SACS, needs to do a serious investigation, as thousands of students potentially received degrees that they did not earn. The federal and state governments should investigate any fraudulent use of government funds to pay for all of this. Finally, because the cooperation of the athletics department was an instrumental part in this whole saga, the NCAA needs to get involved. If anything called for the implementation of the NCAA’s “death penalty” it would be this kind of behavior (well, either this or covering up crimes to protect a team’s reputation). I would suggest that the entire athletics department be banned from NCAA competition for at least a year, all records from the affected teams for the 18 years in which these classes were offered be erased, and all wins forfeited.
Earlier this week the NCAA Division I Board of Directors approved a measure to let the five strongest football conferences to set some of their own rules regarding a number of things. You can find an article in the New York Times here, with links to a few related articles. The only dissenting voices out of the 20 members were from Dartmouth and Delaware. While some of these areas of autonomy seem like common-sense changes that maybe should apply to all schools (better insurance) others allow for the removal various barriers set up to prevent schools from clandestinely paying athletes or allocating extra academic resources to athletes that aren’t available to others (this is already allowed but apparently the rules allow for more changes).
I think this is a terrible idea.
Currently, the five biggest conferences more or less have a monopoly on the Div. IA/BCS championship despite only representing about half the schools. BCS schools also have a vastly oversized influence on the Div. I board, holding more than half the seats but only comprising a third of the schools. So, the current setup of Division I already affords the traditionally strongest schools a vastly outsized amount of influence. This would remove any potential moderating influence from other schools and potentially lead to major changes that, while good for the top few teams, may be bad for college athletics in general. We’ve already seen that it essentially does not matter how good a team in a mid-major conference is. They will probably never play in the national championship game and may not even get enough games from other ranked teams to get a spot in one of the major bowls. The entire bowl system is set up to provide the maximum amount of revenue for the top conferences while setting up unnecessary barriers for everyone else.
By setting their own rules, the major conferences could create a sports arms race that no other conferences can afford. Things are already trending this way anyway, but the changes could create an environment where the major conferences can relegate everyone else to second-class status even outside football. It would be a shame if schools that are traditional powerhouses in minor sports lose that status because they are unwilling or unable to spend as much money or compromise their academics as much as the major conference institutions. I wonder if schools in the lesser conferences will start dropping football and basketball or even dropping out of Division I altogether. The proposal just seems like a covert attempt to create a four division system anyway.
If enough of the rest of Division I opposes these changes they can block it, although the strongest conferences may split off from the NCAA. I actually think that wouldn’t be such a bad thing, as they are also generating much of the corruption in college athletics. I would guess that we can count on the Ivy League, probably the Patriot League, and many of the basketball-focused conferences to oppose these changes. My preference would be for the more academically-oriented conferences in all divisions to split off from the NCAA. Having the Ivy League, NESCAC, Centennial Conference, UAA, etc leave the NCAA to form a new association that eschews the corrupting influences of major conference football and basketball would send a powerful message to the remainder of the NCAA. It could even put an enormous amount of pressure on schools like Stanford and Notre Dame to cut back on revenue sports, just as the Ivy League and schools like the University of Chicago did decades ago. What I would really like to see is the abolition of athletic scholarships and the removal of most of the money from revenue sports, but I do not expect that this will ever happen.