Ross drops the ball on athletics

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 24, 2014

RALEIGH — After four years of athletics-related scandal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, UNC system President Tom Ross ought to have a firm grasp on the problems faced by academic institutions navigating the treacherous waters of big-time college athletics.
Listening to some of his recent comments, that doesn’t appear to be the case.
Ross recently participated in talks with the Knight Commission, a group formed in 1989 to try to stem some of the excesses in college athletics, as it met in Miami.
Upon his return, Ross told WRAL-TV in Raleigh that an idea he put forward is to reduce the academic course load of entering athletes during their freshman year.
It’s a proposal that appears to contradict the commission’s own statement of principles, which includes language that colleges offer academic experiences to athletes that are “as close as possible to the academic experiences of their classmates.”
The idea would also turn on its head one of the key college athletics reforms of the 20th century, the restrictions on athletics eligibility for freshmen to try to allow athletes to acclimate themselves to college before they began competing. That reform was tossed out in the early 1970s. Ever since, universities have been on a headlong rush to turn their athletes in quasi-professionals, minus the professional compensation.
Ross’ idea would accelerate that push. It would also put universities on some pretty shaky legal ground.
What Ross fails to acknowledge is that college athletics, in its current form, can only be justified if athletes are being provided real degrees and legitimate educations.
In his comments, he discussed existing reforms that have resulted in more athletes graduating from college.
What Ross didn’t discuss is how college athletics’ alleged governing body, the NCAA, dropped eligibility standards for entering freshmen in 2003, including eliminating a requirement that they have a composite SAT score of 820 or ACT of 17.
Meanwhile, the Knight Commission’s own reform, which ties post-season athletics participation to graduation rates, may be inadvertently leading to grade inflation or outright academic fraud like that seen at UNC-Chapel Hill.
The implication of criticism like that coming from UNC-Chapel Hill learning specialist Mary Willingham — that some athletes are being admitted who are incapable of college work — is that these athletes are nothing more than uncompensated professionals.
The bargain of college athletics only works if the education being provided to revenue-sport athletes is real and actually worth something to them. Otherwise, universities, as nonprofits without anti-trust exemptions, are doing nothing more than illegally operating professional sports franchises.
That is exactly the charge in pending lawsuits brought by former athletes.
To advocate a supposed remedy that makes further distinctions between athletes and non-athletes on campus, and would delay those athletes’ education, shows a profound lack of understanding of the quaking ground on which college athletics stands.
A UNC system president can and should do better.

Scott Mooneyham is a columnist who writes about state government issues for Capitol Press Association.