Remedies for an institution that has “lost control”


At the panel presentation that kicked off the work of the Rawlings committee in April, 2013, Jay Smith made a plea to the UNC faculty that they become more openly “adversarial” in their relationship to athletics. In the wake of the NCAA’s finding last week that UNC had lost “institutional control” over athletics during the long fraud years, the argument presented that day seems more relevant than ever.

Jay Smith comments for Rawlings panel, April 19, 2013.

I would like to use my time today to focus on two issues, the first of which will lead directly into the second. First, I want to argue, as aggressively as I can, that the relationship between faculty and athletic departments, not only at UNC but across the land, needs to become more openly adversarial. We as faculty must vigorously maintain our adversarial role, and both partners in this relationship of academics-to-athletics need to become much more comfortable with friction. I don’t want to point to particular sins of the past at UNC, but I am convinced that faculty complacency contributed to the institutional breakdown from which we are still trying to recover. The “we’re all in this together” approach to the management of the academic-athletics relationship did not work for us.

Now, when I refer to faculty and athletics officials as adversaries, I don’t mean to imply that they are enemies, or that the people involved should dislike one another, or even that they should mistrust one another’s motives. We have different motives, and for the health and long-term prospects of the University and its students—athletes included—faculty and athletic departments must honestly acknowledge that their enterprises rest on divergent, often conflicting principles. Faculty are devoted to truth and discovery in their labs and classrooms, and to the process of educational credentialing for all degree-seeking students. In pursuit of these goals we teach and model rigorous analysis, we maintain high academic standards, we engage with our students as partners on an intellectual journey, and we assume that extracurricular pursuits are…extra. The athletic department also educates, but athletic programs are dedicated first to securing the wins that bring in revenue and good will, and in pursuit of that goal they recruit students whose ticket of entry to the University is athletic skill rather than academic promise, they place great time demands on players (thus directly limiting their study time), and they use every available stratagem to keep athletes eligible to play, eligible to perform the function they were brought to the University to perform. The athletics department has a huge infrastructure in place to facilitate this pursuit of wins—generous boosters, lavish facilities with nutritionists, doctors, and trainers, an army of well-paid coaches, an ever-expanding “compliance” office, a large and physically independent academic support program. And we faculty must see those people as our institutional adversaries—as people who will pursue their goal even if it means impeding or compromising the pursuit of our goals: educating, promoting research and discovery, upholding standards, and maintaining intellectual rigor across the board. The breakdowns occurred at UNC because our adversaries applied pressure—direct and indirect, conscious and unconscious—to the academic infrastructure that it is our job to protect.  If we are to protect that infrastructure more effectively in the future, we must acknowledge that we are always under siege.

So, we need to have an adversarial relationship—like defense and prosecuting attorneys—making our best cases for our competing arguments, and trusting that truth and justice will be served in the end through the very conflict that we too often seek to avoid.  And here’s one battleground where we need to meet right away: the semantic field through which students who play sports get defined. The prevailing term of choice, student-athlete, is a mythical one.  I use myth here not in its conventional sense—as something that is make-believe or simply untrue. Rather, I use the term myth as the French rhetorician Roland Barthes used it. A myth is a speech act or act of communication that sends a whole package of culturally coded messages—Barthes called them second-order signifiers—that effectively construct a narrative, a mythology, that gives us pleasure and that we like to tell and to have told to us. Myths make us feel good, they can sometimes soothe our consciences. Myths should not really be judged by their truth claims, because that’s not the point of a myth. Myths should be judged, instead, by their effects. The myth of the student-athlete is, I’m sorry to say, a bad one. I’ll point to two reasons why.

1) As the historical development of the term shows—first used in the 1950s, it was formalized and given official status in the 1970s when the NCAA was trying to avoid worker’s compensation claims by players—the term student-athlete was invented for the purpose of disguising. The term is a catch-all that erases—among other things—the distinction between the athletes who see themselves and are taught to see themselves as students first and those who see themselves and are virtually required to see themselves as athletes first. It collapses the distinction, to use Richard Southall’s terminology, between “profit” athletes and “expenditure” athletes. The profit athletes are the marrow, the life force, of the system, and we need to isolate and analyze their experiences if we’re ever to wrap our heads around the challenge we confront—the challenge of creating an honest and equitable system.  So, first, the term student-athlete functions as a disguise.

2) The term, when invoked by University administrators or NCAA spokespersons, applies a veneer of wholesomeness—all those culturally coded images of people going pro in something other than sports—that conveniently covers up the intentions of those who concocted the term and who propagate it zealously to this day.  Those people say that all athletes are “students first”—look it up on the NCAA’s website—and that the sporting identities of athletes are incidental to their identities as students. Yet athletic departments, Universities, and the NCAA profit from the labors of a certain subset of athletes—principally those in football and men’s basketball. They train and treat those athletes as pre-professionals who remain under the firm tutelage of coaches and athletics personnel from their first day on campus to their last. The business model in which they operate requires that academics remain a secondary concern—even and especially for the profit athletes who are most academically challenged. That’s why 75% of UNC’s scholarship athletes [in football and basketball] cluster in the same three majors, it’s why challenged students often have nearly identical transcripts—loaded down with the same notoriously easy courses. It’s why counselors find the friendly faculty out there, it’s why athletes can miss my class when they’re traveling but they can’t take my class if it conflicts with their practice schedule. These guys are not students first—and both former Missouri football player Sean Coffey and former Maryland basketball player Laron Profit have both recently scoffed at the notion that they were brought to their campuses to be students. The student-athlete mythology allows us to rationalize all of this. It discourages us from looking behind the curtain to see the gears of a vast business enterprise and the power relationships that are central to it.

I’ll give a relatively minor example of the pernicious use of the term student-athlete from the UNC case, since this was a public incident many will remember. When learning specialist Mary Willingham went public last November with details of some of what she had seen and heard in the Academic Support Program in her seven years there—namely, the refusal of superiors to do anything about cheating she had witnessed and reported, the widespread knowledge about academic fraud in Julius Nyang’oro’s courses, the purposeful exploitation of those courses to boost GPA’s for the athletes who needed it—one might have expected athletic administrators to be angry.  And apparently they were.  But they weren’t angry at the former leaders of the support program, or at the counselors who had allowed years to pass without saying a word about they had witnessed, or at their predecessors who had allowed this scam to unfold for over a decade.

No, they were angry at Mary Willingham. They were angry at her for pulling back the curtain on the actual academic experiences of those athletes who are not students first. In a letter published in the Raleigh New and Observer, a UNC Athletic Dept spokesman attacked Mary’s account as dishonest and unfair. He said, and I quote, “it was especially unfair to student-athletes who come to Carolina to get an education and play a sport.” We might debate who exactly is being evoked with this reference to “student-athletes who come to Carolina to get an education,” but this statement is as clear an example as I’ve seen of using the blinding myth of the student-athlete as a shield to deflect criticism and to shut down suspicions that there’s something unseemly going on behind that myth.

We the faculty have to slay this dragon, this myth of the student-athlete—not least because the athletes need us. We have to reassert our jurisdiction over their academic lives and experiences. We have to ensure that they are all getting the educations they deserve and will need in life, that they are all indeed capable upon admission to the University of profiting from what UNC has to offer, that they all have access to the full menu of educational opportunities available at a great University, that they are all able to freely choose what to study, and that their academic pursuits and their long-term futures aren’t being short-circuited by the needs of an athletic department that focuses on wins by necessity. If we are to advocate successfully for the athletes, we must first ensure that we have an unobstructed vision of reality. Obfuscating myths and confusing language should be banished so that we can perform our proper adversarial role—and thereby perhaps rescue the athletes who are being used in the name of a fraudulent mythology.  The first easy step toward a more honest and transparent relationship between academics and athletics is to strike “student-athlete” from our lexicon.


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