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The Tar Heels’ State: Academic Scandal, Big Money, No Surprises

One of my favorite John Wayne movies is Trouble Along the Way, in which the Duke plays Steve Williams, a former major-college football coach reduced by circumstances and scandal to hustling pool and making book to raise his young daughter. Into their lives comes Donna Reed, as a straitlaced social worker who knows offensive line play, and Charles Coburn, as Father Burke, an elderly priest and the rector of St. Anthony’s, a struggling Catholic college1 somewhere in New York City. Donna has come to make sure that the little girl isn’t becoming too damaged living in a bar and grill. Coburn has come to offer Steve a job, and gives him carte blanche to turn the program around. So Steve starts raiding recruits from other colleges, hiring coal miners and returning war veterans, and cutting in the help on the concessions and all the other ancillary revenue. Naturally, the whole thing collapses, but it all collapses in a heartwarming way. Steve stays at St. Anthony’s, Father Burke retires, and it is clearly implied that Donna Reed and the coach soon will be making the ol’ single-wing with each other.


1.

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Right at the beginning, though, as the priest is pitching the job to the coach, Steve seeks to enlighten him about the realities of big-time college sports:

Oh, it’s a fine game, football — noble game. Originated in England in 1823. An enterprising young man named William Weber Ellis … found his team behind in a soccer game, so he picked up the ball and ran through the amazed opponents for a thoroughly illegal touchdown. And that’s how football was born — illegitimately. So it moved to America, where someone took advantage of a loophole in the rules and invented a little formation called the Flying Wedge. So many young men were maimed and killed that President Roosevelt … had to call the colleges together and ask them to make the game less brutal … Football became an industry. The price of a good running back often surpassed the salary of a professor. And when some righteous committee unearthed this well-known fact, there was always a coach that took it on the chin.

Did I mention that this movie was released in 1953? There are no new problems in college sports. There is only new mock outrage.

Tar-Heels

The latest round has been prompted by the University of North Carolina discovering that for almost two decades thousands of students, many of them athletes in the university’s elite programs, had been shuffled through to their diplomas through the use of “paper classes,” which did not really exist except as a device to keep the athletes eligible to play. Looked at outside of all context, the sophistication of the fraud seems mind-boggling. Athletes were funneled into imaginary seminars where their “academic counselors” — or the coaches themselves — would decide what grade they got. (How would you like to be the guy who got a C in a class that didn’t exist?)

Context, however, is everything. The report came out at a time in which the basic paradigm of college sports is under attack. The system is overdue for collapse because it is a system based fundamentally on two basic, if incredibly opulent, absurdities: the absurdity of the mad, profit-whoring way we run higher education and the absurdity of believing that it is one of the functions of our institutions of higher education to be part of the multimillion-dollar sports-entertainment industry. The first absurdity leads inevitably to the second one, and the second one leads inevitably to the NCAA, an organization born of absurdity that has managed to create new levels of absurdity every second it has been in existence. It is, honestly, laughable.

A year or so ago, Robert L. Jackson of Murray State University in Kentucky published a study about fund-raising and university presidents. Jackson’s report detailed how state appropriations for higher education had declined precipitously, dropping by about one-third since 1980. Jackson’s data showed that almost 75 percent of the college presidents considered fund-raising — and its brick-and-mortar cousin, “development” — to be one of the three most important parts of their job. (This is not dissimilar to the vice in which newly elected members of Congress find themselves; they are told when they arrive that they have to spend between four and five hours a day raising the money they will need to get reelected.) The job of the college president now primarily involves selling him or herself or the institution. And, in America, the profit motive is not a delicate instrument. It is a sledgehammer applied to existing institutions, no matter how delicate they seem.

This is not entirely a burden. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, in the academic year of 2011-12 the median salary of the president of a public university rose 4.7 percent, to more than $440,000 a year. But, as the importance of the president’s fund-raising function grew, it increasingly became the leading metric by which performance was measured. At the same time, there has arisen an increasing awareness of grade inflation — especially at the country’s more elite colleges and universities. Grade inflation is little more than the profit motive gussied up in a gown and a mortarboard and sent off into the classroom in disguise.

In the situation at North Carolina, we see both of these related imperatives working in concert. What are elite college sports except massive fund-raising exercises? North Carolina’s basketball and football teams bring a combined $50 million a year to the university. And is what happened there anything but a grotesque example of grade inflation? The Ivies have allowed grade inflation to occur so as to maintain their place as America’s most prestigious universities. North Carolina allowed grade inflation to maintain that flood of athletic revenue — and, to be fair, to maintain its image as a major college sports power that does things The Right Way, because there’s money in that, too.

And now it will fall to the NCAA, God help us, to parcel out blame and responsibility and punishment. At this point, of course, the NCAA is little more than a walking conflict of interest, and an absurd one, at that. The NCAA would not exist if players were not paid under the table. The NCAA would not exist if so many of its “member institutions” weren’t playing ethical mumblety-peg with their academic integrity to keep the players eligible and the money flowing everywhere except into the pockets of the people doing all the real work. There is absolutely no way this will end well. There is absolutely no way this will not end hilariously, however.

The primary function of a university is not to make a buck any more than it is to help the banks gouge the student body. (Germany just did away with college tuition entirely.) Colleges have no business being vehicles for mass entertainment any more than they have business selling widgets or maintaining a fishing fleet. It is no proper part of a university’s mission to provide quality television programming and year-round gambling opportunities for the rest of the country. That this has become the norm in America’s system of higher education is a monstrous accident of history and of academic neglect, but there it is, and it is not going anywhere, and the only way to do it is simply to make an honest business out of it. This is the direction toward which events seem to be pushing the industry at the moment. There’s a kind of blessed relief in that, because the screams of outrage and betrayal never quite drown out the faint echoes of the hoofbeats of horses long ago let out of the barn.