Commentary

When athletics and academics don't mix

A probe of a tutor at North Carolina raises issues about athletes as real students

Originally Published: August 31, 2010
By Bomani Jones | Special to ESPN.com

On Saturday, a tweet from WTVD-TV's Mark Armstrong in Raleigh-Durham said nine players on the University of North Carolina's two-deep were on the scout team for that day's scrimmage. This after reports had surfaced that players linked to a tutor under NCAA investigation would practice with the Tar Heels at that level. The nine included eight starters from last year's team and six players in Scouts Inc.'s top 50 NFL draft prospects.

And seven communications majors.

The real story isn't the allegation of cheating; nor does it matter who did or did not receive an unfair helping hand from the tutor. That someone might be writing papers for college students, not just athletes, isn't surprising. A Google search for "term papers" turns up dozens of "custom term paper" writing services and makes it clear that athletes with monstrous academic support staffs behind them might not be the only suspected plagiarists on campus.

[+] EnlargeButch Davis
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeIt's past time for Butch Davis and other college coaches to start doing a better job of integrating their athletes into the student environment.

If you're looking beneath the surface for the problem in Chapel Hill, you might find it in the amazing coincidence that so many top-notch athletes are so interested in how humans relay messages. Or maybe it's just that "communications" fits the bill for what a former UNC football player told me about the majors of choice there: Athletes are interested in a major that works around their busy schedules, requires little math, primarily assigns short papers and uses subjective grading in most of its courses.

That common thread among so many of UNC's best players reflects a problem particular to athletics. It isn't limited to Chapel Hill; nor is it merely an indication of how education has been devalued across the board. Only in athletics are students asked to manage their schoolwork around their real jobs. It's the only department on campus where limiting the scope of one's educational possibilities is passed off as a favor. It essentially designates a teenager to be academically irredeemable.

As long as education is used as currency for athletes' bodies and ungodly amounts of their time, they must at least learn something. Otherwise, they're being "paid" with rubber checks.

They receive clothes, lodging and the chance to work, a bushel of goods that makes comparisons between college sports and human trafficking unavoidable. Without an enriching educational environment, the current system of college athletics is worse than unfair. It's inhumane.

That is why the resolution of these allegations of academic impropriety is so much more important than the sprawling probe of agents that began after NCAA officials noticed UNC's Marvin Austin tweeting about enjoying some benefits that college football players might not be allowed. That investigation centers around external forces that are oppositional to the NCAA, enemies the NCAA will always face as long as schools are so concerned with growing revenues. It's the NCAA protecting its virtue from those that wish it harm.

[+] Enlargetextbooks
Joe Raedle/Getty ImagesToo often, textbooks take a backseat to playbooks among so-called student-athletes.

The academic allegations don't come with a bogeyman like agents. They are about a school against itself -- its lucrative and visible side business versus its primary objective, two things that each day seem to have less to do with one another. More importantly, it's a public battle between reality and the rhetoric that makes the current system at all defensible: that education is a priceless, uplifting asset that student-athletes will have forever.

Asking head coach Butch Davis and athletics director Dick Baddour to answer for one tutor isn't enough. What UNC needs to ask itself is whether the millions it invests in academic support is about teaching student-athletes or keeping them eligible and making them viable contributors to the school's Academic Progress Rate.

One tutor is just one tutor, regardless of who knew what she was doing. The real problem is a system -- bigger than any one school -- that treats educating athletes as a requirement rather than as a responsibility.

The schools owe these athletes a legitimate education. The vast majority of the student body pays tuition in exchange for the right to attend classes and live in a collegial environment. Athletes trade themselves for that education, but then have their time compromised as much as students who have to work full-time to put themselves through school do. They never have a chance at the total college experience, as most of their classmates do. And if their athletic obligations leave them with very little free time, someone has to make sure they get the most out of the work they do in the classroom. For all we know, the UNC players asked the tutor to write papers for them because they legitimately didn't have the time.

Yet when student-athletes are shortchanged and insulted by a system that reinforces the notion that they're good for little more than what they do on the field, we just shrug.

When will more athletic departments uphold their end of the bargain and stop shielding athletes behind easy majors and preferred professors? When will they challenge their players to do things they never thought they were capable of scholastically, the way they do athletically?

And if they don't, how can they look themselves in the mirror and defend what they do? (My colleague, Roy S. Johnson, raised similar issues here last week, and rightly included the sporting media in his catalogue of irresponsibility.)

[+] EnlargeBaddour
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeFor UNC athletic director Dick Baddour, the tutor issue comes on top of allegations of impermissible contact between agents and some of the Tar Heel football players.

After all, who gains from this academic culture? It certainly isn't the players. If they can't hack the football-and-classroom work load at a big school and attend a smaller, less pressurized institution instead, they can still become professional athletes, and be better thinkers in the process. History shows that the NFL will find talent wherever it is, so it isn't as if playing for a smaller football program necessarily derails anyone's dreams.

The only parties that stand to gain from coddling athletes academically are the adults who profit off them: coaches, administrators, boosters and sponsors. As long as education is treated as something to fit in around football, those people use the kids just as the agents Nick Saban so famously referred to as "pimps" do.

Yet they're so rarely the ones called on the carpet. And even when they are, little comes of it. Two and a half years ago, the Ann Arbor News published a damning series about the University of Michigan that detailed a patronizing system in which athletes were encouraged to take "easy" majors and shuffled into independent-study courses that sometimes involved as little as using a day planner. (And this was before Rich "'Round the Clock" Rodriguez showed up.)

If the series made a ripple, the waters have long since stilled.

Even if heads were to roll in Chapel Hill in the scandal's aftermath, the proverbial body would likely live on across the country. And that matters a lot more than one tutor at one school.

Bomani Jones contributes to the Page 2 blog and hosts "The Morning Jones" from 7 to 10 a.m. on Sirius 98, The Score Satellite Radio.

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Bomani Jones is a contributor to ESPN.com.

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