On April 19, in a federal court room, lawyers representing former collegiate athletes took on the NCAA and the University of North Carolina in what could prove to be a landmark case. At stake is "academic integrity," a term that both the NCAA and its member institutions like to trot out when athletes are under investigation for academic fraud. Except this time, it is the NCAA and its member institutions (most notably UNC) who are the accused.
How this case unfolds is crucial. The tenacious mythology of the collegiate sports model rests in the "student-athlete" moniker that the NCAA coined in the 1950s to avoid workers compensation liability. The term became the linchpin of the NCAA's raison d'etre--to protect college students who are athletes from the evils of commercialization. The "students first" battle cry against commercialization has kept the NCAA in business. And it is BIG business, generating billions of dollars in revenues that go back to the universities. These billions go back to schools, like UNC, who are charged with educating these same "student-athletes." The wheels of the money machine could well go flat if the "student" part of this equation no longer has the traction the NCAA needs it to have.
A lot is at stake, including the lives of collegiate athletes who go to college on an athletic scholarship to learn, contrary to the caricatures people often have about athletes as those who only care about their sport. And it is the upturning of the landscape of the "academic integrity" mythology, which defines collegiate sports, that is at play in this court case. It has been easy for public opinion to swing against athletes who are labeled "cheaters" when it comes to academic fraud. Will it be as smooth a swing for that same public to see the university as the fraudulent entity? The NCAA and its member institutions sure hope not.
Consider the facts of the case and just a few clues as to how the NCAA and UNC are going to argue against their culpability. The University of North Carolina, for more than twenty years, had a system in place for students to get "easy A's." Every university has its bunny classes. And students know what they are. But UNC took it to a different level. Athletes were often steered toward these classes in order to stay eligible. Eligibility, by the way, is an NCAA-derived and sanctioned system that ties academic standing to playing time. In other words, you can't play if your grades dip below a certain point. The NCAA says so. And its member institutions have used eligibility to amplify their "students first" mantra. Eligibility is their proof that school comes first.
The problem comes at a school like UNC -- which has a championship caliber basketball team just about every year -- when those darn eligibility rules start to kick in for players they need on the court to win games. When the championship is on the line, who has time for remediation for students in challenging classes? There are more dependable ways for an institution to protect its investment. For UNC the eligibility problem was solved by having classes that required a paper, didn't include meeting with an actual professor, and where grading was done by an office staff person.
Here's the part that trips people up: athletes did the work that was required of them in these classes. And in many cases, these athletes had no idea there was anything fraudulent about these classes. Academic advisors steered them toward taking the classes. In some cases, athletes were handed schedules that they had nothing to do with determining. The biggest mistake many of these athletes made was trusting the university that promised to provide them with a meaningful education. In the UNC case, however, it was an easy leap for university officials, faculty, and fans to blame the athletes for cheating and to give the university the benefit of the doubt.
This time, however, some athletes are not going to settle for being scapegoated for a system they did not create. Instead they are going to hold the NCAA and the university that promised them an education to its word. So far the arguments from the NCAA and UNC attorneys lean heavily on denying responsibility and on obscure technicalities of the law.
The NCAA argues it is not responsible for the education athletes receive. An interesting Pontius Pilate-like washing of the hands in an area where they most certainly have a stake. We only have to conjure up a couple words to remember that: "eligibility" and "student-athlete." Consider for a moment that it is the NCAA investigating UNC for academic fraud -- the same misdeeds that the NCAA itself is now being sued for in this case. Do they have a stake in academic integrity or not? They are at once answering their own question with a yes and a no. That's a thin line of ethical standing. In fact, the line is disappearing as they speak.
And the university argues that the statute of limitations has expired on the case (which, they argue, is apparently three years in cases of universities having fraudulent classes in place for over twenty years) and they are claiming "sovereign immunity" as a state university. In other words, "the emperor can do no wrong." Unfortunately for UNC, that mythic immunity disappears when enough people can see clearly the emperor has no clothes.
The Rev. Marcia Mount Shoop, PhD is a theologian, minister and author of Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports. Marcia and her family have been involved in football in the NFL and at Division I collegiate levels for over two decades. She is also a middle school cross country and track coach in West Lafayette, IN.