Mary Willingham worked in the Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling at UNC–Chapel Hill until 2014. Both she (in 2013) and Smith (in 2014) received the Robert Maynard Hutchins Award from the Drake Group for integrity in the face of college sport corruption, making UNC the only institution with two Hutchins award winners. Willingham is the founder of Paper Class, Inc. (paperclassinc.com), an organization dedicated to fighting on behalf of student-athletes for a fair and proper education.
Smith and Willingham’s new book, Cheated (Potomac Books, 2015), examines athletic-academic corruption at UNC-Chapel Hill and in NCAA athletics.
The slow but certain death of college “amateurism”—and its last protector
The NCAA and its member institutions continue to claim that college athletes are students first, and that they therefore should be regarded as amateurs not deserving of financial compensation for their athletic labors. College athletes are handed “world class” opportunities to seize an education. NCAA president Mark Emmert and just about every Athletic Director in the country claim that those opportunities ought to be enough for them. Emmert was recently heard saying that big structural changes may soon be coming to the world of college sports, but that “the paying of student athletes won’t be a part of that shift.”
When you become a reliable punch line for the comedians of late night television, however, you might want to consider whether the standard rationalizations of your behavior remain tenable. Both Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Saturday Night Live recently skewered the NCAA and its cherished “students first” myth. Oliver juxtaposed millionaire coaches with overworked athletes who sometimes go hungry during their playing seasons. Saturday Night Live, meanwhile, built its opening skit around the preposterous notion that an athlete would ever be permitted to put his academic interests ahead of the interests of his team. The “character” at the center of the SNL skit, head basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski of Duke University, makes approximately ten million dollars annually, which is nearly ten times the salary of the university’s well paid president, Richard Brodhead. The idea that Duke’s millionaire coach would risk losing an important game so that a player could attend to his biology class was ludicrous on its face, as is the idea that today’s college football and basketball players are getting all that they deserve in exchange for the glory and the profits they generate. To satirists, to fans, to viewers of late-night television, and to virtually anyone outside the NCAA and its “big time” athletic departments, it is crystal clear that our college athletes are working more than full time jobs, with long hours of travel, and with the ever-present risk that an injury will end a playing career before it has even started. In return for their efforts, they get no salary, no workers’ compensation or long-term health insurance, no representation or bargaining power, and they also live under the constant threat of being declared ineligible to play because they have run afoul of some arcane or incoherent NCAA rule. Athletes are told that they must rest content with the “world class education” they get in exchange for their labor. But a new question now poses itself: Do universities really live up to their end of the bargain? Do they provide the educations they promise?
In our book, Cheated, we expose the academic lies and fakery that undergird the entire college sport system in the twenty-first century. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which egregiously offered hundreds of fake classes that awarded fake credit hours to many hundreds of athletes over a twenty-year period, provides a great case study for what is going on behind the scenes at Division I institutions of higher learning today. The pressure to sustain the fiction that scholarship athletes in football and basketball are truly “students first,” and that they are pursuing educations comparable to those of their non-athlete classmates, forges institution-wide networks of complicity. Athletes are pressured every which way to make athletics their priority, and academics are more often than not “taken care of” on their behalf. “Everywhere, it seems, university faculty and other employees have been willing to actively subvert the real educational mission of their institutions.”(Cheated, p. 207) The rationale for consigning big-time college athletes to their status as unpaid “amateurs” is that they are supposedly “paid” with educations instead of money. But it turns out that the currency now used to compensate college athletes—namely, a quality education and the opportunity for self-improvement that ostensibly comes with it—is often counterfeit. Athletes are being swindled, and deliberately so. And they are being swindled by universities, which makes the crime perpetrated against them all the more offensive.
The hypocrisy of big time college sport was emphasized again just days ago when the NCAA issued its initial response to the McCants-Ramsay class action lawsuit that alleges educational fraud on the part of UNC and the NCAA. In a motion for dismissal, the NCAA claimed that it, as a governing body, “did not assume a duty” to ensure that the educations received by athletes are real. They leave that technical detail, they say, up to their member institutions, college administrators and faculty. Although they are adamant about enforcing the amateur status of the athletes who sign scholarship agreements, NCAA enforcers deny all responsibility for ensuring that the foundation of amateurism is sound. The NCAA legal team simply changes the meaning of NCAA rules as they go along.
But as Frank DeFord noted in a recent NPR commentary, “the jig is up.” When you have become a national punch line, and when you find yourself a defendant in class-action lawsuits that seem to multiply by the day, you are clearly living on borrowed time. When the end finally comes for the NCAA, only high salaried coaches and bureaucrats will shed any tears.