By Ken Reed

The University of North Carolina is widely known as one of the ten best public universities in the United States. It’s reputation as a research giant is impeccable. Moreover, under legendary basketball coach Dean Smith, the school was often cited as an example of a college that successfully combined excellence in athletics with excellence in academics. Until the last couple years, North Carolina had the national reputation of keeping sports in proper perspective.

You can consider that reputation heavily tarnished today, following the release of a report on widespread and long-term academic fraud on the Chapel Hill campus. The report outlined in great detail examples of academic cheating and phony classes over a period of approximately 20 years at UNC. The scandal involved primarily football and basketball players but touched other parts of the athletic department as well.

There were no findings directly implicating Smith, who preached the importance of academics throughout his long North Carolina coaching tenure. However, people associated with Smith while he was the head men’s basketball coach at UNC were aware — at least to some degree — of phony classes and independent study programs.

Columnist Luke DeCock raised the fundamental question that needs to be addressed in today’s college sports environment: “Is excellence in big-time intercollegiate athletics fundamentally compatible with academic excellence at a national research university?”

I think the answer is no. If this type of extensive academic fraud is taking place at one of America’s top academic institutions, there’s little hope that big-time athletics can be conducted ethically at any of the universities in the Big Five power conferences. Even places such as Stanford and Duke admit athletes that wouldn’t have been admitted on their academic qualifications alone.

Sport at the NCAA Division I level is a huge sports entertainment enterprise. It is much more compatible with the NFL and NBA than it is Division III athletics. University administrators simply aren’t equipped to run mammoth entertainment entities. And they shouldn’t be asked to.

The United States is the only country in the world that ties elite athletic competition to universities designed for academic purposes. All across Europe, young elite athletes play for club teams, not school teams. School is for learning and clubs are for developing sports skills. The only sports programs in European universities are intramural programs, or in some cases, low-level, student-led club sports programs.

The media in this country focuses on these college sports scandals instead of the ill-conceived system at their foundation. Big-time sports and higher education are simply incompatible.

What we have at the NCAA Division I level, most notably in the large “Big Five” conferences, is a flawed system that makes it very hard for education to remain a priority in the athletic department and for college sports to be run in an ethical manner.

University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins saw the problem clearly way back in 1939 and decided to drop big-time football at his school because of the overt commercialism and lack of integrity involved in college sports at the time. A 55,000-seat stadium on the Chicago campus was knocked to the ground.

“To be successful, one must cheat. Everyone is cheating and I refuse to cheat,” said Hutchins.

The choices at this point appear to be two: 1) Deemphasize all college athletics to the Div. III level (where the University of Chicago now competes); or 2) Transition Division I sports programs into for-profit subsidiaries of universities (which will require removing the non-profit status under which they currently operate), and make school attendance optional for the athletes that participate. A scholarship for school attendance could be part of the athlete’s compensation package but classroom attendance — or achieving a certain grade point average — would not be required in order to be eligible to play.

Win-at-all-costs and profit-at-all-costs mentalities are hard to overcome in today’s college sports world. Too many coaches, athletic directors, boosters and school presidents are ethically-challenged in this high pressure environment.

So, let’s face the facts and do what’s necessary. Stop the myth of amateur athletes playing for a great education and the love of the game and make these big-time college sports programs for-profit businesses.

Or, chuck it all, like Hutchins did, and let’s go to the Division III model where there’s no athletic scholarships and, for the most part, the athletes are actually serious students.

You simply can’t fix big-time Division I sports because the model that combines elite academics and elite athletics is fatally flawed.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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