Play For Pay

Nick Weiler is a kicker for the football team at the University of North Carolina. A week ago, with 4 seconds to go against Florida State, he kicked a 54 yard field goal to win the game and was therefore raised in the eyes of the Tar Heel faithful to the level of hero. Throughout his four years at North Carolina he has been an extraordinarily talented kicker and will assuredly be drafted into the NFL after graduation — if he graduates. Graduation doesn’t seem be a high priority for those who play football in Division I of the NCAA.

In any event, after the game-winning kick ESPN decided to send one of their reporters to visit with Nick for a day and do a “piece” showing their viewers what it is like to be the Big Man on Campus. As it happens, Nick doesn’t spend much time on campus, preferring to keep a low profile in his off-campus digs and just “hanging” with this friends — when not on the practice field. As far as I could tell from the brief piece very little of his time, if any, is spent in class or the library. In fact, if this young man’s experience is typical of athletes in Division I football, going to class is not much of a priority. It’s all about the game and about emerging as a star in order to have a chance to play in the NFL.

The sense that the sport is of primary concern at the Division I level was driven home to me personally not many years ago when a transfer from the University of Minnesota played tennis for my team for one year. She told me that as a Freshman she was told at that Division I school to take her classes before noon. After noon she “belonged to the tennis team.” This is women’s tennis, folks!! In contrast, we practiced two hours each afternoon and played most of our matches on weekends in order not to miss classes.

But, back to football. There are other stories like Nick’s. I had a good friend years ago who attended the University of Illinois back in the day of Dick Butkus who, it was said, hung out in the student union until, in his words, it was time to “go to work.” He was there to play football and he did that very well — well enough to become a Hall of Fame NFL player. And he also made movies to entertain us all!

These are anecdotes, of course, and don’t allow us to draw reliable generalizations. But, none the less, they give us a glimpse into the life of the semi-professional football players in Division I football — who are, reportedly, also given to violence off the field, especially toward young women. But, again, we must be careful about generalizations. I am sure there are a great many young men out there who actually respect women, go to class, and end up with a degree in hand at the end of four years. A few at any rate. Division I football programs are not famous for their high graduation rates.

In fact, I recommended years ago in an article I wrote for the Montana Professor (http://mtprof.msun.edu/Fall2001/CurtArt.html) that the athletes in Division I football — and basketball — be paid to play and not required to attend classes at all. Folks don’t care about these young men and what they might or not do after college — unless they go on to play for the NFL or the NBA which is apparently their dream. If they were paid a salary to play football or basketball then they could, if they wanted to do so, pay for some classes and actually earn a college degree just like their fellow students. And they would graduate without the huge debts incurred by their classmates!

In any event, let’s stop calling them scholar-athletes and going through the rigamarole of making them attend classes just for show. So many are in college for just one thing: to make it into the pros. So let’s be honest and admit that these are semi-professional athletes in what are, in effect, the minor leagues of their sports simply working to achieve a level of proficiency that will make them attractive to the professional teams.

In a word, what we do at present, in addition to exploiting these young men, is a sham and dishonest to boot. Let’s pay these men — even let them join unions — to play the games they love and wear the uniforms of their respective colleges and universities. But don’t make them go to class at all, even to take underwater basket-weaving and other non-challenging courses designed to make their lives as easy as possible while they maintain their NCAA eligibility to play games. If they really want a college education, they can pay for it like everyone else. If not, they can simply “go to work” each day and hope to land a huge salary playing at the professional level after a few years at the Division I level. At the very least, it’s more honest than what we do at present.

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The Tail of That Dog

I have written about the tail that wags the dog for many years and general awareness has increased; none the less, the problem isn’t any closer to being solved. I speak of the inordinate amount of money and time spent on athletics, especially in NCAA Division I schools, that seriously undermine the higher purpose of education. A recent article in Sports Illustrated about the scandal at The University of North Carolina focuses the issue nicely. The author, a graduate of UNC, turns his attention to the weakening of the academic program that is in direct proportion to the rise of the athletics programs at one of the most prestigious Division I schools. He raises the question”How Did Carolina Lose Its Way?”

It is especially disturbing to see the problem growing in the face of the inordinate costs of athletics, reflected in the fact that public universities, like UNC, now spend three to six times as much on athletics per athlete as they do on academics per student. Even more remarkable is the fact that the average amount of money lost, I repeat, lost, on athletics among Division I public universities is $11.6 million each year. So the myth that athletics brings in the dough turns out to be just that, a myth — except for those schools at the top of the pyramid, including the University of North Carolina where the cost of athletics has grown from $9.1 million in 1984 to $83 million last year, and the cost to the university in the reduction of the quality of education is beyond rubies.

The problem doesn’t end with the cost to the athletics program at that university. It extends into the classroom as well. At UNC where the recent controversy centers around the Department of African and African-American Studies, the main problem started to appear in 1993, the year that a woman by the name of Debbie Crowder headed up the AFAM department. The SI story describes the program she initiated in which

She began to devise “paper classes.” The “shadow curriculum” run by Crowder and department head Julius Nyang’oro “required no class attendance or course work other than a single paper, and resulted in consistently high grades that Crowder awarded without reading the papers,” the report said. (Crowder retired in 2009 and Nyang’oro was forced to retire in ’11). A disproportionate 47.4% of the enrollees in AFAM classes were athletes, mostly the football and men’s basketball players.”

The problem at UNC also includes “special admits,” the alarming number of students who are admitted to the university with “rock-bottom SAT verbal scores of 200,” scores well below the acceptable level, coupled by the placement of those students very carefully into special classes designed to guarantee their success — at the university if not in later life. One is put in mind of the parent who allows his child to continue to eat candy thinking they are doing the child a favor while, in fact, the child’s teeth are rotting out. In any event, as it happens, the problem at UNC goes beyond the AFAM program and included

“philosophy lecturer Jan Boxill, who was chair of the faculty and head of UNC’s Parr Center for Ethics (!), [who] was discharged last October for steering athletes into sham courses, doctoring students’ papers, and sanitizing an official report in an attempt to shield the athletics department from NCAA scrutiny. From 2004 to 2012, The Daily Tar Heel reported, Boxill also taught 160 independent studies — 20 in one semester. (The standard runs between one and three per year).”

Those independent studies courses, of course, were a joke. But apparently the fox was caught guarding the chicken coop! (A philosophy professor, I shudder to admit, and chair of an Ethics Center to boot!) But the problem extended beyond the playing fields and the gymnasium as students across campus became aware of the “cake courses” being offered by various departments. According to the report, those taking Crowder’s “paper classes” numbered  3,100 students, the majority of whom were not athletes.  This is not new — students will always find the easy courses to help their GPA — but it has simply grown by leaps and bounds at North Carolina, where some courses aren’t even real courses, but most are encouraged by the demands of the athletics department.

Thus does the infection begin to seep into the bowels of the university itself and infect the entire student body. A recent book by two professors at UNC, Cheated: The UNC Scandal: The Education of Athletes and The Future of Big-Time College Sports, focuses attention on the problems at that university, where “We show pretty persuasively that it all started with easy-grade-independent studies in the late ’80s for a handful of weak students on the men’s basketball team and mushroomed from there.” But as the SI article points out, the issue is broad and deep. The author of the article asks in discussing the current situation with the new chancellor at UNC, where things have reportedly been put straight, “. . . [whether] the money in college sports — at least $16 billion in TV contracts alone — [makes] ‘the right way’ impossible”? That is the $64 million question. In saying this, however, it is important to point out that it isn’t only at the University of North Carolina where these sorts of problems exist. They are becoming all-too common, not to say prevalent. The tail is indeed wagging the dog.