Drop the Disguise

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In a recent Daily Tar Heel (DTH) article about the fallout from the Wainstein report, UNC Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham was quoted as saying: “At some point we’ve got to move forward. And I think we’re to that point.”

In the final installment of our continuing series, “Why we can’t move forward,” we present another reason UNC-Chapel Hill is only treading water when it calls on everyone to help the flagship “move forward.”

Reason #8 Code words and euphemisms still protect the athletic machine.

Carolina recently announced with great fanfare a program called Complete Carolina. Thanks to this program, any athlete who leaves the University without finishing his or her degree will be permitted to come back to finish at a later time at no cost to the student. Oh wait, did we say any athlete? The fine print of the terms and conditions of this program actually enables the University to exclude a large percentage of the athletes who might want to take advantage of this valuable opportunity. Debbi Clarke, an advisor to the Provost’s “working group” who has apparently been charged with implementing the new system, explained to the Daily Tar Heel recently that, of the thirty-two athletes who have applied to the program, sixteen–or fifty percent of the applicant pool–“do not meet the parameters for returning to UNC to complete their degree.” Do not meet the parameters? Which parameters would these be? And why have the parameters not yet been spelled out for the public? Initially, the University announced that only athletes who had left the University “in good academic standing” would be permitted to return, but the well-meaning UNC AD Bubba Cunningham suggested on 99.9 The Fan last summer that ultimately “we’re going to try to get all of them.” So where do we stand? Why is University policy and language so opaque? In light of the admissions policies followed at this institution for decades–admissions policies that opened the door to athletes with sub-700 SAT scores, sub-16 ACT scores, and shoddy high school GPA’s–does the University not have a moral obligation to complete the educations of all athletes, particularly those who came in with inadequate preparation but a lot of physical talent? Is it not precisely the athletes who struggled most in the classroom who most need a helping hand today? If UNC admitted people who needed remedial instruction that was denied them, should those people not be first in line to receive the after-the-fact gift of a genuine education? If they need help to become “academically eligible,” shouldn’t the University pull out all stops to give them whatever help they need, especially if it means instruction in basic reading, writing, and math?

Common sense provides obvious answers to these questions, but the UNC athletic machine–and the big-time sports enterprise more generally–does not obey or even acknowledge common sense. The prime purpose of Complete Carolina is not to educate former athletes but to provide PR cover for an operation designed for the exploitation of athletes. Like the term “student-athlete,” which permits Cunningham and his minions to foreground the “educational experience” of fencers, rowers, and golfers while distracting attention from the teams fans really care about, Complete Carolina is a propaganda ploy that creates the appearance–the much-needed appearance at this juncture in NCAA history–that Universities care deeply about the educational outcomes of basketball and football players. The fact is, they do not care. At all. If they cared, they would not permit practice schedules that preclude afternoon classes. They would not permit major clustering that leaves 75% of scholarship profit-sport athletes in one of two majors (see Cheated, p.175). They would not have permitted academic counselors to steer athletes into content-less paper classes that taught and demanded nothing. The ten football players who were just admitted to the University in January? UNC would have us believe that those guys were admitted early so they can get a head start on their academics. This is nonsense. If January admissions were such a grand idea, would the University not admit regular, non-athlete students in January each year? This never happens, and for good reason. Entry in the middle of the year leaves a student unmoored, out of sync with the academic schedule, and lacking an orientation program that can help with adjustment issues. The ten football players just admitted, who by the way constitute an abnormally large mid-year admissions class, were admitted in January so that Larry Fedora can have them jump through hoops in spring practice–not because anyone cares a whit about how they will perform in English 105 or English 100. (If any of the ten happen to need the remedial English 100, they will not even be able to take it until the summer–meaning what, exactly, about their ability to navigate this semester’s courses? Good luck athletes!) UNC hides its policies and its real priorities behind feel-good language and happy talk (“we educate and inspire through athletics!”) But the double-speak really isn’t fooling anyone anymore.

As a final illustration of UNC’s true priorities with respect to its profit-sport athletes, we close with an anecdote shared in our forthcoming book Cheated. The story underlines the callous disregard for educational achievement that so often shaped the work of ASPSA counselors in the scandal years:

‘[Graduate student] Anne Berler taught several athletes in American history survey courses, and she gained added perspective from serving for a year as a history tutor in aspsa. She recalls one especially painful tutoring session, during the first of her two semesters on the job, during which she tried to prepare four football players for an upcoming in-class history exam that would require one essay and several short id answers (the questions having already been distributed to the class in advance). Finding it impossible to elicit from them potential thesis statements for the essay, she decided to simplify the session by focusing on the shorter and more basic id questions. “Take out your notes,” she said. They all stared at her blankly. “You have no notes? Well . . . okay, let’s look at the textbook. We can find the portions of the text in which the id items are discussed.” They slowly dragged out their texts and located the chapter that focused (to the best of her memory) on the Monroe Doctrine. “Okay, so how would we want to define the Monroe Doctrine?” More silence. “Here’s a start. Let’s take a few minutes to write a one-sentence summary for each of the three paragraphs that talk about this item. Then we’ll see how we might put them together in a meaningful whole.” After leaving them on their own to write for a bit, Berler came back to see what they had come up with. Three of the four were finishing up, but the fourth was concentrating intently, hunched over his notebook. Peering over his shoulder, she noticed that he still had not managed a sentence. “Having some trouble? Well, just read this key sentence here out loud. What would you say is most important in there?” As the player began to fumble over the first words on the page, Berler suddenly realized that the striking physical specimen in front of her was a nonreader. Sensing his embarrassment, and feeling embarrassed herself, she immediately changed direction so that the player’s teammates would have their attention shifted elsewhere. “Okay, everyone, what did the professor say about the Monroe Doctrine just last week?”

The next morning Berler expressed her concerns to Beth Bridger, the chief academic counselor for football. She explained that she was having a serious problem reaching one of the players she had helped the night before, and she had no idea what to do about it. Bridger, unmoved, responded with smiles and encouragement. “Just keep at it. I’m sure he’s getting something out of it.” But Berler felt no encouragement. In fact, by the end of one semester of tutoring, she felt that she was defrauding the university even by accepting payment for services rendered. “I wasn’t helping those guys. They were never engaged anyway, but tutoring just wasn’t what they needed. I didn’t know how to teach someone to read. I felt like a failure.” She stayed with it for one more semester, but she left the aspsa demoralized and haunted by a nagging question: “How are these guys passing their classes? How are they surviving?”’

Many do not survive. That ugly reality is no longer going to be hidden by the fig leaf of programs like Complete Carolina. Change is coming.

 

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