By Jonathan Miller
There was something special about yesterday afternoon’s Elite Eight matchup between the University of Kentucky Wildcats and the University of North Carolina Tar Heels. Arguably, the two best remaining teams in the NCAA tournament squared off, reprising their thrilling December contest, perhaps the best college game played all year, and certainly one of the most fun to watch. The teams represented two of the greatest traditions in the history of college hoops—their marquee pedigrees evoking decades of memories of extraordinary basketball.
There was also something disturbing about yesterday’s contest. The University of North Carolina simply should not have been playing. Their postseason presence—following an almost-championship run last year—makes a mockery of undergraduate athletics.
More than two years after revelations surfaced that the school engaged in the most morally offensive institutional misconduct in the history of college sports, the team plays on, without even a hand check on the wrist.
Every time I make that charge, I get scolded for minimizing the far more abhorrent Penn State football child-molestation scandal. In that instance, a handful of miscreants committed crimes. With this week’s conviction of former school President Graham Spanier for child endangerment, justice has been served.
By contrast, UNC’s academic scandal poisoned institutions the entire campus … and the injustice goes on. The list of reminders of the ignominy includes the following:
- Over nearly two decades, more than 3100 UNC students enrolled in a series of sham African and Afro-American Studies classes. They received As and Bs, even though they never took tests or even showed up in class.
- According to an independent report commissioned by the University, a conspiracy among faculty members, administrators, and academic advisers perpetuated the scam, whose sole purpose to keep athletes eligible to play by steering them to classes in which the only requirement was a single paper … that no one ever read.
- An example of the fraud? Students in third-level Swahili fulfilled the school’s foreign language requirement by writing a paper on African culture in English … not Swahili.
- The classes were an open secret on campus—word spread throughout the Greek system. More than half of the affected students were not athletes.
- After the release of the independent report in October 2014, public outrage and media criticism was fierce, with one particularly unstable columnist even suggesting that the Tar Heels should receive the death penalty. A year later, new damning allegations involved basketball tutors who provided inappropriate academic assistance. This past December, the school just received its third notice of allegations from the NCAA.
- And yet … the NCAA investigation drags on, with delay after delay sparked by new revelations. The university’s response? Throw out some of the evidence because a four-year statute of limitations expired … because of all of the foot-dragging and new allegations.
Let’s be clear: The UNC academic scandal subverts the moral bargain universities cut with student athletes. In return for all of the acclaim—and money—you bring to the university, we prepare you for the workplace with free education and training.
The students who took the bogus courses received no education. Many had no contact with teachers. For the vast majority—who didn’t make it to the NBA—they entered the job market with few, if any, tangible skills and less training. Further, thousands of non-athletes were collateral damage, graduating with a devalued diploma.
The UNC scandal provides a stark example of a complete loss of institutional control in a way that directly harmed the very young people whom the school was entrusted to protect. The message must be clear: This can never happen again.
When he first learned about the transgressions, NCAA President Mark Emmer stated that “this is a case that potentially strikes at the heart of what higher education is about.” He was right then. But now, as his organization reaps millions of dollars in benefits from UNC’s continued presence in the postseason, the NCAA’s credibility plummets even further.
Maybe the NCAA will finally get its act together in April and take appropriate action against North Carolina. How about vacating its potential wins in this year’s tournament? And maybe our nation’s politicians will finally put aside partisanship, roll up their sleeves to find compromise, and foster some solutions to this nation’s most vexing policy problems.
One can dream …
In the meantime, a Cat victory might have provided a temporary remedy for NCAA inaction.
Unfortunately, UNC won. A national championship for the school might set the stage for the NCAA to show some real fortitude.