Jay Smith on the Board of Trustees Meeting

Here’s a quick follow-up to my earlier post about Joel Curran’s evasive response to the recent HBO story in which UNC football players complained about having been steered to courses and majors that had been selected because of their likely impact on their GPA and eligibility status. At this week’s Board of Trustees (BOT) meeting, the athletic director paraded athletes before the Board in order to prove to them that HBO had it all wrong. Many UNC athletes, after all, are good students who achieve at high levels in the classroom. And the people who were put on display for the Board insisted that they have been given all the support that they need. Basketball star Marcus Paige said about his counselors: “They’re always there for you. They want you to succeed.” One would hope so.

This little propaganda exercise deserves comment for several reasons. First, it continues the wisely chosen athletic department strategy of deflecting criticism of past practices by decrying the alleged harm done to UNC’s current athletes whenever criticisms are voiced in the public domain. Using the athletes as human shields, athletic department personnel disingenuously claim that their critics are throwing darts at innocents who deserve respect and support.

This infuriating debating tactic requires a response. Those who dare to raise the “academic preparedness” issue have repeatedly been accused of insulting, stigmatizing, denigrating, and failing to respect the athletes on UNC’s campus. So let’s be clear. Like everyone at UNC, Mary Willingham and I have great admiration for the many Marcus Paiges in the athletic program. Accomplished and high-achieving students make up the great majority of the athlete population at UNC-Chapel Hill, and we support and applaud them all.

But Bubba Cunningham knows full well that the debate that is raging at the moment is not really about the Marcus Paiges of the world. (Even the highly accomplished athletes in the current system have their choices and range of motion deliberately limited in countless subtle ways, however.) The deformed academic experiences that were part and parcel of the athletic program at UNC for twenty years decisively shaped the educations of a relatively small subset of UNC athletes–namely, the athletes in the profit sports who had been labeled by the athletic department itself as either “at risk” or needing/deserving of academic free time they could not get in the normal university curriculum. Because many of these athletes were valuable to their teams, the university found ways to keep them on the field or court, even at the risk of fueling academic fraud, and even at the risk of failing them academically.

So Cunningham merely continued on Thursday the tactic that Curran had used on Wednesday. He never acknowledged or sought to rebut the substance of the HBO report–the on-camera testimony about the “steering” done by academic counselors in recent years. Instead he chose to celebrate the accomplishments of all the *other* athletes who are on campus today.  “We could not be more proud of what they do,” he said. Again, one would hope so. Who, by the way, ever suggested that the critics of UNC were not “proud” of its hard-working and high-achieving athletes? Such statements amount to a diversionary tactic, one that continues to permit administrators to avoid answering the direct questions raised by countless media reports in recent months. Did counselors steer athletes? Did eligibility pressures ever lead to course choices, major choices, drop/add decisions, major changes? And did the under-preparedness of some of the affected athletes help to determine the way they were “handled” by the ASPSA? *Those* athletes also deserve respect, admiration, and support. Yet UNC and its athletic department still refuse to acknowledge the validity of their claims and the seriousness of the wrongs committed against them. Mary Willingham respects and always sought to support *every* athlete with whom she worked. She took great pride in the achievements of the most challenged students who came to her. Why has UNC not shown that same general commitment?

Cunningham wants to focus on the present, as do other university leaders. That’s fine. Admit to the ways in which the university failed many athletes in the past, tell us why those failures occurred, and *then* assure the world that UNC will do better going forward–indeed, that it is already doing better. (There are, after all, many positive signs suggesting that that is the case.)

But please stop trying to change the subject.  And don’t continue to use athletes as human shields.

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