Leadership void at UNC continues

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 27, 2014

RALEIGH — More than three years ago, I wrote in this column how the scandal that was just then enveloping the athletics department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had revealed a huge leadership void.
Despite new names and faces, the empty and soulless leadership plods on.
So, when a one-time learning specialist at the school, Mary Willingham, produced a study suggesting that a significant number of men’s football and basketball players over a seven-year period could not read beyond the eighth-grade level, with a handful reading at or below a fourth-grade level, the school responded by suspending her research.
As outsiders defended the research, the school and its provost, Jim Dean, attacked it.
In front of faculty, Dean said the testing conducted by Willingham could not alone be correlated to grade levels, as she had done.
In its marketing, the company that produces the test notes, “Subtest raw scores are converted to estimated grade equivalents, standard scores and percentiles.”
No doubt, Dean has contacted the Federal Trade Commission about these outrageous claims.
A day earlier, the school’s athletics director, Bubba Cunningham, appeared on the sports network ESPN to defend the school from another report by Dan Kane of the News & Observer of Raleigh quoting a former UNC football player calling his education “a scam.”
Trying to blunt its effects, Cunningham said: “So as you probably know, the Academic Support Center for student athletes at North Carolina has never reported to athletics.”
Nice thought.
It isn’t true, though.
One of the university’s own investigations of the scandal pointed out that the center’s funding came from the athletics department and that then-academic advising head Robert Mercer had both an academic boss and reported to then-Associate Athletics Director John Blanchard.
Did I mention that Blanchard previously held Mercer’s job? (The reporting structure was later changed.)
The excuses, obfuscations and distortions wore thin a long time ago.
So has the UNC Board of Governors and UNC system President Tom Ross’ refusal to take charge.
What no one associated with the flagship can seem to come to grips with is that they aren’t helping these athletes. They are exploiting a significant number of them.
When athletes can’t do the work, when they are funneled into disciplines designed for scholars and eventual graduate students, when they don’t even have to go to class, that is exploitation.
College athletics is broken, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has become Exhibit No. 1 in the case.
If Ross et al won’t acknowledge that in meaningful ways, and get on the right side of history by beginning to fix it, he and they should be replaced by someone who will.
The university and university system are far too important to North Carolina’s standing and place in the world to be damaged by children playing games who worship young men and women playing games.
Scott Mooneyham is a columnist who covers state issues for Capitol Press Association.