Navigating the Flagship Post-Wainstein

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With New Year’s resolutions bearing down on us once again, from the vantage point of paperclassinc one broad question looms over all others: Can American universities make the resolution to change the broken system of big-time college sports?

Pressure is certainly coming from the outside. In 2014, a series of sports-related hearings on Capitol Hill, a surprising motion to form a players’ union, and several blockbuster court cases quarterbacked by some of the country’s most prestigious law firms finally educated the general public about the underlying realities of college sports. We are stuck with a broken system where profit-sport athletes are paraded around as “students-first” and where the money that is made off their backs pays for everything–millionaire coaches, fat-cat administrators, lush practice fields for field hockey teams–except for their own long-term welfare. With no representation and no voice, too many young men (the majority of them black) are exploited on the field and on the hard wood floor week after week in a finely coordinated masquerade whose moves have been perfected–and pushed nearly to the limits of their contradictions–over a period of decades. In the past year or so, a newly aggressive media, operating at both the regional and the national level, played an important role in exposing the naked truth inside and beyond the locker room. They often used the UNC paper class scheme–which Drake Group president Gerald Gurney recently called “the most egregious case of academic fraud…in NCAA history”–as the object lesson in collegiate sport corruption. By the end of 2014, the educational defrauding of profit-sport athletes at last took center stage in a developing national debate about the merits and the viability of the current collegiate model of sport.

But where do we go from here? In Chapel Hill, NCAA penalties and possible accrediting agency sanctions are now pending in the wake of the famous Wainstein Report. In the coming year, the resolution of several outstanding lawsuits and the National Labor Relations Board’s decision on whether to halt or ratify Northwestern football’s unionization efforts may disrupt the calculus of university administrators across the country.

Leaders, however, do not wait for circumstances to dictate their actions. They do not wait for unfolding events to force their hand. Instead they act preemptively to model good behavior, to implement their guiding values, and to combat glaring inequities.

If UNC-Chapel Hill wants to salvage its final opportunity to forge a path of reform that will garner national attention, inspire emulators, and possibly usher in permanent changes to the college sports landscape, the waiting for leadership has to end. The institution must wrestle openly and honestly with the structural issues laid bare or hinted at in the Wainstein report. To date, unfortunately, the University’s response to Wainstein’s findings has been weak, directionless, and naive at best (cynical at worst.) Singing yet another round of the “it’s time to move on” chorus, Chancellor Carol Folt and various university spokespersons have pointed reflexively to the “70 reforms” already implemented or in process across the academic and athletic arenas.

An idea of the purpose behind this “look over there” strategy can be gleaned through a close reading of the said reforms. Among these putatively cleansing institutional reforms are the following, listed in no particular order:
1) the Academic Support Program for Student Athletes and the standard Advising office in Steele Building have managed to “clarify and coordinate their distinctive and complementary roles;”
2) the Athletic department has hired a “new head football coach” (reforming what, exactly, in the process?);
3) the Faculty Athletics Committee has implemented “a plan” that involves a “fact-based approach to evaluating the alignment of the University’s academic mission with athletics” (it’s good to see fact replacing fiction, for sure, but shouldn’t athletics be aligned with the academic mission and not the other way around?);
4) the Athletic Department has implemented a new “Vehicle Use Policy and training program” (thank goodness);
5) the University…created a website to keep people informed of the various ongoing investigations;
6) the Provost has required “visits to classrooms each semester to confirm classes are being held;”
7) the Department of African and Afro-American Studies has changed its name;
8) the University has notified faculty “about new course syllabi guidelines;”
9) in 2014 the Athletic department–our favorite of all the enumerated “reforms”–provided the NCAA an “annual compliance report as required by the infractions case of March, 2012.” (This is not a typo. The University is touting as a reform its acceptance of the discipline meted out to it over two years ago by the NCAA.)

Can you feel those bracing winds of change?
To be fair, important changes of policy and procedure are also included among the “70 reforms” the University ceaselessly touts–independent study courses are unlikely to be abused again, for example, and that is a great thing–but the inclusion of many a trivial and redundant item in this reform roster provides a clue to its real purpose. The “70 reforms” mantra is meant to create the impression of great change and profound lessons learned while it actually enables the institution to sidestep the deeper meanings of the scandalous behavior it fomented, facilitated, and used to advantage. The compiling of a catalog of “things that are different now,” no matter how lengthy that catalog, could never substitute for searching conversation and a detailed explanation of what has actually been revealed through four years of institutional upheaval.

Very few of our leaders’ words and deeds to this point in the post-Wainstein era indicate that they are ready to embrace their responsibility to hold a “let’s take stock” conversation. Despite repeated, impassioned calls for a series of town-hall meetings where demands for accountability could be aired and large issues could be openly and thoughtfully addressed, there has been little-to-no effort to convene the campus community for a no-holds-barred colloquy, no effort to encourage teach-ins, no attempts to engage the student body or the general faculty in a dialogue about the chief lessons to be derived from the experience of 1993-2014. (The one seeming exception to this rule was a two-hour assembly the chancellor scheduled at a late afternoon hour on the very day the Wainstein report was released–with few members of the campus community having yet had the time to read or absorb the details of the special investigator’s text.) Instead of exercising moral leadership, administrators have pointed to fixes already settled upon, they have lined up their nine scapegoats (though without telling the world anything about the process through which the goats are being led to slaughter), and they have announced with fanfare a series of large private gifts made to the University’s treasury. And they continue to wait for the Wainstein report to recede ever further into the rear-view mirror.

In a series of blog posts over the next few weeks we will suggest some of the conversations that must still take place at UNC-Chapel Hill if the institution is to emerge strengthened and emboldened to lead in the wake of its long humiliation.

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