Why do I want to abolish the NCAA? Here are a couple of reasons, from the recently concluded spring semester:
1. In my large lecture class at Boston University on the history of journalism, I had a student who was also a member of B.U.’s Division 1 men’s hockey powerhouse. On the first two tests of the term, he got failing grades. I noticed and suggested that he come see me during office hours to discuss steps he could take to improve. He replied that he could not come to office hours because they conflict with his practice schedule and his coach would not tolerate an absence (even for a few minutes to talk to a professor!). Why, I thought, is the coach more important on a college campus than a professor? But I let it go and changed my schedule so I could meet with this student one morning. He described his schedule of practice and travel to out-of-town games, and it became clear that he just didn’t have time for his classes. Essentially, all the top men’s hockey programs make up a development league for the NHL.
Ultimately, he withdrew rather than suffer an “F” (which would jeopardize his eligibility to play hockey!)
2. In the same class, I had a young woman who was a member of B.U.’s swimming and diving team. Again, practice and travel time would interfere with class. But in this case, there was an added wrinkle: concussion. Turns out, this student had taken enough blows to the head in diving that she could not read, study or do a lot of other things that are pretty central to being a student. During her recuperation, she rushed back into the pool too early and suffered a second concussion. She managed to pass the course.
3. Finally, in the same class (of about 60), I had a student who was a star on the B.U. women’s golf team. (Who knew that we even had a women’s golf team?!?) Early in the term, she approached me with the official letter all the varsity athletes get from the Athletics Dept. identifying the student as a competitive athlete and begging my indulgence with their travel and competition schedules. In her case, the team over-performed and won its league championship, which led to a regional tournament and ultimately to the national tournament — which conflicted directly with the final exam in my class. With ambivalence, I granted her a later make-up date, with no penalty. (Then, while she was away at the tournament, I got a distraught message from her: the team’s van had been broken into and some asshole had stolen all their valuables and laptop, so she couldn’t even attempt to study.)
Now, here’s proof that I don’t know everything: the golfer ended up with the highest grade for term!
As if we needed any more evidence that the NCAA is a corrupt and destructive organization, here is the word from the horse’s mouth: comments by Walter Byers, the former long-time executive director of the NCAA, who died recently at age 93. In his New York Timesobituary, Byers is described as both a creator and a destroyer — he is hailed for having “forged a moneymaking colossus” only to see the NCAA develop into a racket that Byers himself considered “corrupt and unfair.”
Some excerpts from the obit:
Mr. Byers is often given credit for coining the term student-athlete, and it’s possible he did (he was known to deflect both credit and the spotlight), although, as he put it in his 1995 memoir, “Unsportsmanlike Conduct,” “We crafted the term student-athlete, and soon it was embedded in all N.C.A.A. rules and interpretations.”
But as his tenure grew closer to its end, he viewed the college sports landscape with increasing cynicism, recognizing, he said, that the high stakes of the sports business had led to rampant corruption, made the notion of amateurism quaint and outdated, and gave an air of hypocrisy to the N.C.A.A.’s insistence on maintaining it.
In 1984 Mr. Byers told The A.P. that he believed that 30 percent of big-time college athletic programs were cheating and that he despaired of bringing the problem under control. He suggested the creation of an “open division” within the N.C.A.A., in which colleges could opt to operate their sports teams as semiprofessional programs.
“I don’t think the fabric of higher education as we believe in it and would like to see it function in this country can stand the strain of big-time intercollegiate athletics and maintain its integrity,” he said in a subsequent interview with Sports Illustrated.
It becomes clearer every year around the Bowl season that big-time college football is essentially a farm system for the NFL in which the players are not paid. That’s great for the NFL and for spectators; not so great for the players or the universities they supposedly attend.
How much more evidence does anybody need that the NCAA is a deeply corrupting force on U.S. college campuses?
Especially among the big-time Division 1 schools, the NCAA tarnishes everything it touches. Lately, I have been avoiding/following the coverage of the most recent scandal at my beloved alma mater, The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (m.a., 1982). The proud flagship of the Carolina system, UNC-CH is a school with high ambitions — both academic and athletic. And that’s where the trouble starts.
In pursuit of the money and status associated with big-time televised college sports, UNC has chased ratings and championships for decades in men’s football, basketball, and lacrosse. Which raises the inevitable question: how can a college attract top-tier students who can also hack the academic requirements of a good school?
Which raises the inevitable answer: at least some of those athletes will manage it by getting a pass on their schoolwork. That, in turn, requires the active collaboration of coaches, deans, and professors who should know better. They are not serving those young athletic superstars by brooming them through school without actually learning anything. And they know it.
That’s the upshot of the scandal at UNC, which is detailed in a report by a former prosecutor, Kenneth L. Wainstein. Read the report here. It is a masterpiece of understatement.
Some of the coverage can be found here (an SI interview with the UNC athletic director, who is actually named “Bubba”)
As I read his latest column, the NYTimes’ Joe Nocera seems to be edging toward the realization that the NCAA is beyond reform and should be abolished. Today, he tells the story of whistle-blower Mary Willingham, who was hired as a tutor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill for intercollegiate athletes.
I’m just catching up with a fine review by Caitlin Flanagan in the NYTimes Sunday Book Reviewabout what sounds like a fine book by William D. Cohan about the fiasco that was the Duke lacrosse “scandal” of 2006. Without re-hashing the accusations or the ensuing rush to judgment, the issue raises the question:
What educational role does intercollegiate lacrosse play at Duke University?
I think the answer is pretty obvious.
From Flanagan’s book review:
It has become possible, these past several decades, to think of Duke as consisting of a professional basketball team to which, bizarrely, a research university has attached itself. But it is the “nonrevenue” sports at Duke — and the school’s relentless, aggressive and very expensive campaign to build them into powerhouse brands — that have most radically changed the tenor of that campus. The strange centrality of the athletic program in the life of an academically excellent institution, and the many unintended consequences this situation has wrought, is the subject of William D. Cohan’s “The Price of Silence: The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, the Power of the Elite, and the Corruption of Our Great Universities.” The book is at once a masterwork of reporting and a devastating critique of a university that has lost its way.
. . . The ill-advised party that would end in the rape charges took place at the beginning of spring break, when the team was required to stay in Durham to practice. This forgoing of their vacation week had resulted in a new tradition in which players spent their off-hours partying, hard, in a kind of alternative spring break. At the beginning of the week, the coach came to practice with some $10,000 in cash, which he passed out to the players in fat wads. The absurd amount was ostensibly for meals, although many of the players were sons of wealthy families and could afford to buy their own chow. By that night, the cash was being spent on all the ancient vices: booze, gambling and the hiring of desperately poor women for sexual entertainment. The players chose to do all of these things, of course, and it was their responsibility to deal with any disastrous outcome that might result from them. But the way in which that huge pile of cash played its role in the events hangs over “The Price of Silence.” It raises the most disturbing questions about how Duke envisions its student-athletes, what it expects from them, how it is willing to accommodate them — and how it will drop them, completely, when they are no longer of use to the university. . .
Tallahassee, Fla. — Early on the morning of Dec. 7, 2012, a freshman at Florida State University reported that she had been raped by a stranger somewhere off campus after a night of drinking at a popular Tallahassee bar called Potbelly’s.
As she gave her account to the police, several bruises began to appear, indicating recent trauma. Tests would later find semen on her underwear.
For nearly a year, the events of that evening remained a well-kept secret until the woman’s allegations burst into the open, roiling the university and threatening a prized asset: Jameis Winston, one of the marquee names of college football.
Three weeks after Mr. Winston was publicly identified as the suspect, the storm had passed. The local prosecutor announced that he lacked the evidence to charge Mr. Winston with rape. The quarterback would go on to win the Heisman Trophy and lead Florida State to the national championship.
After a Florida State student accused quarterback Jameis Winston of rape, the police did not interview him or obtain his DNA. Phil Sears/Associated Press
In his announcement, the prosecutor, William N. Meggs, acknowledged a number of shortcomings in the police investigation. In fact, an examination by The New York Times has found that there was virtually no investigation at all, either by the police or the university.
Again I ask: what is the educational purpose of intercollegiate sports?