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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Big-money university sports in crisis

There's a scene in Casablanca (1942) where the delightfully corrupt police captain Louis Renault closes Rick's Café Américain by proclaiming "I am shocked - shocked - to find that gambling is going on in here!" The croupier then hands Renault his winnings.

Recent events in the athletics program of the University of North carolina at Chapel Hill remind me of that scene. Apparently a tutor for athletes at UNC-CH broke NCAA rules, university rules, or both and thereby contaminated some athletes and the football program in general. It remains to be seen how large the scandal will grow.

When I was an undergraduate at Georgia Tech, every degree program required Calculus. (That's still the case today -- no exceptions. Tech probably has the most narrow portfolio of degree programs of any university in the top tier of athletics competition.) Recruiters for the University of Georgia were said to have traveled with Calculus textbooks so they could scare high school athletes away from Tech. I can't testify to that, but I do know that so many scholarship athletes at Tech had problems with Calculus that the Athletic Department hired tutors for them. Personally, I served as a tutor in English for football players. I bent the rules... by a lot. I'm not surprised in the least by the UNC-CH news.

It's time for a reality check. Most scholarship athletes in big-money sports at large universities -- football and basketball, mainly -- became professionals on the day they got their high school diplomas. We merely pretend that they're amateurs. The copious NCAA regulations and occasional enforcements are diversions to convince us that all is well and that rule-breakers are outliers.

That's a crock, folks. TV money and alumni money have perverted these athletic programs beyond the ability of the NCAA to police them. Look at the symptoms:
  • undue influence of rich, over-involved alumni with too much time on their hands,
  • admission of academically unqualified athletes who displace deserving applicants and require remedial instruction,
  • unscrupulous professional agents that prey on teenagers who have more money than maturity,
  • academic infringements and reprehensible behavior by athletes who don't care about education,
  • the "one and done" basketball players whom universities knowingly rent for a season,
  • the near-complete segregation of athletes from the rest of the student body, and
  • shockingly low graduation rates.
Big-money university athletics are horribly and perhaps irreparably broken. Nobody wants to say so because the revenue is too seductive for the universities and we, the public, like to see our school teams win.

What a mess!