RALEIGH — After four years of scandal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, UNC system president Tom Ross ought to have a firm grasp on the problems faced by academic institutions navigating the treacherous waters of big-time college athletics.
Listening to some of his recent comments, that doesn’t appear to be the case.
Ross took part recently in talks with the Knight Commission, a group formed in 1989 to try to stem some of the excesses in college athletics, as it met in Miami.
Upon his return, Ross told WRAL-TV in Raleigh that an idea he put forward was to reduce the academic course load of athletes during their freshman year.
It’s a proposal that appears to contradict the commission’s own statement of principles, which includes language that colleges offer academic experiences to athletes that are “as close as possible to the academic experiences of their classmates.”
The idea would also turn on its head one of the key college-athletics reforms of the 20th century. Though since abandoned, that reform placed restrictions on athletics eligibility for freshmen in order for them to acclimate themselves to college before competing.
That reform was tossed out in the early 1970s. Ever since, universities have been on a head-long rush to turn their athletes into quasi-professionals, minus the professional compensation.
Ross’ idea would accelerate that push.
It would also put universities on some pretty shaky legal ground.
What Ross fails to acknowledge is that college athletics, in its current form, can be justified only if athletes are being provided real degrees and legitimate educations.
In his comments, Ross talked about existing reforms that have resulted in more athletes graduating from college.
What Ross didn’t mention is how college athletics’ alleged governing body, the NCAA, dropped eligibility standards for entering freshmen in 2003, including eliminating a requirement that they have a composite SAT score of 820 or ACT of 17.
Meanwhile, the Knight Commission’s own reform, to tie post-season athletics participation to graduation rates, might be inadvertently leading to grade inflation or outright academic fraud like that seen at UNC-Chapel Hill.
The implication of criticism like that coming from UNC-Chapel Hill learning specialist Mary Willingham – that some athletes are being admitted who can barely read, who are incapable of college work, who have sub-800 SATs – is that these athletes are nothing more than unpaid professionals.
The bargain of college athletics only works if the education being provided to revenue-sport athletes is real and actually worth something to them.
Otherwise, universities, as nonprofits without anti-trust exemptions, are doing nothing more than illegally operating professional sports franchises.
That is exactly the charge in pending lawsuits brought by former athletes.
To advocate a supposed remedy that makes further distinctions between athletes and non-athletes on campus, and would delay those athletes’ education, shows a profound lack of understanding of the quaking ground on which college athletics stands.
A UNC system president can and should do better.
Scott Mooneyham is a syndicated columnist who writes about state goverment and politics.