An excerpt from my current book project The Literate Practices of Big-Time College Sports under contract with Utah State University Press.
On January 22, 2015, two former student-athletes sued the NCAA and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for failing to provide quality education. In the 100-page class action complaint, Rashanda McCants, a former women’s basketball player, and Devon Ramsay, a former football player, allege that “This case arises out of the NCAA and UNC’s abject failure to safeguard and provide meaningful education to scholarship athletes who agree to attend UNG—and take the field—in exchange for academically sound instruction. This latest lapse, however profound, is regrettably just one of many such episodes in the history of college sports.”
The incensed rhetoric directed at the enterprise of college sports continues at the end of the opening section titled “Nature of the Action”:
This academic debacle, at one of the nation’s finest public universities, could not have come as a surprise to the NCAA . . . Instead, the NCAA sat idly by, permitting big-time college sports programs to operate as diploma mills that compromise educational opportunities and the future job prospects of student-athletes for the sake of wins and revenues . . . UNC’s bogus classes once again reveal the great hypocrisy of college athletics in America. The NCAA and its member schools insist that their mission and purpose is to educate and to prevent the exploitation of college athletes. Yet it is the schools, the conferences, and the NCAA that are engaging in exploitation, subverting the educational mission in the service of the big business of college athletics—and then washing their hands of college athletes once they have served their purpose. (2, 3)
At the core of this lawsuit is an October 2014 report which revealed that some university employees directed roughly 1,500 student-athletes to sham classes, classes that never met and classes in which the content only included a brief research paper that would inevitably yield a high grade.
According to the report spearheaded by Kenneth Wainstein, a former official with the U.S. Department of Justice, these cases of academic misconduct stretched over a 20 year period, included 188 classes in African and Afro-American studies department and involved more than 3,100—about half of which were student-athletes.
In the wake of the scandal, UNC’c Chancellor, Carol Folt, fired or disciplined nine employees, whose names have not been released. Which one cannot draw a direct line of causality between offering sham classes, and thereby inflating low GPAs to ensure athletic eligibility and winning national championships—is takes more than a strong GPA to win a national championship—it is worth noting that during this twenty-year period in which these infractions took place, UNC athletics notched twenty national championships. Again, specific student-athletes or sports are not mentioned in this report, so it is unfair to accuse all sports at UNC from 1994 to 2014 of committing academic fraud. For example, women’s soccer won ten national championships since 1994, the most of any sport at UNC. However, when an athletic program is found guilty of systematic cheating and academic fraud, a black cloud sits weightily on all sports programs.
Former football player Michael McAdoo sued UNC over these fraudulent classes in November of 2014, just one month after Wainstein released the report. But the lawsuit filed by Hausfeld LLP in Durham County (North Carolina) Superior Court on behalf of McCants and Ramsay is the first to also point an accusatory finger at the NCAA.
And pointing this finger makes sense. Though the NCAA was initially founded with the mission of protecting a student’s health, the NCAA has slowly morphed into passionately—and some would include naively—fighting to protect the amateurism of the student-athletes and education of the student-athlete. The NCAA has long repeated their mantra of student first and athlete second and also, and correctly, argue that the majority of the half-a-million student-athletes will find professional careers outside of their sports.
However, in its response to the lawsuit, the NCAA said it has no legal responsibility “to ensure the academic integrity of the courses offered to student-athletes ate its member institutions” (qtd in Ganim, 2015). Donald Remy, NCAA chief legal officer, provided an additional view on the NCAA’s response: “This case is troubling for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the law does not and has never required the NCAA to ensure that every student-athlete is actually taking full advantage of the academic and athletic opportunities provided them” (qtd. in Ganim, 2015).
Unfortunately, Remy and the NCAA are right here; McCants and Ramsay don’t have a case. The governing of college sports is a massive and overwhelming enterprise. Though I take issue with the NCAA over a number of their recent and historical decisions, I can begin to sympathize with an organization that undertakes the Sisyphean task of overseeing over 1,200 member institutions and the academic and physical well-being of close to half-a-million student-athletes. Think about other national, not global, sporting governing bodies: the National Football League, also a governing body which has displayed serious lapses of judgment under current commissioner Roger Goodell. Goodell and the Commissioner’s office oversees 32 teams; the MLB, NHL, and NBA commissioners all oversee 30 teams. The NCAA not only oversees more teams, more players, but also oversees more in general: the four major sports don’t need to worry about protecting amateurism and making sure their players do not receive extra benefits; the four major sports don’t have to worry a lick about academics; the four major sports just have worry about managing a profit and making sure their player stay out of handcuffs and make period public service appearances.
Facing with the inevitable task of regulating almost all levels of collegiate sport, the NCAA, understandably, began delegating. This delegation also all voluntary institution members—remember, being in the NCAA is voluntary—to set their own dictums for academic standards and enforcement. Higher education very much embraced autonomy and the NCAA has granted it through their vague Principle 2.5.
Intercollegiate athletics programs shall be maintained as a vital component of the educational program, and student-athletes shall be an integral part of the student body. The admission, academic standing and academic progress of student-athletes shall be consistent with the policies and standards adopted by the institution for the student body in general (2.5).
So when academic fraud bubbles up, it should fall on the shoulders of the schools, not the NCAA. It’s unfortunate, but I can understand it.
What that means for us—composition and rhetoric scholars and curators and creators of writing curriculum—is that when we want to work with student-athlete writers, we do not need to start at the top and with understanding how the NCAA understands writing support. No. We can helpfully start at the local level, with our home campuses and begin, or sustain, or steer the writing conversation in ways that allow how we work with non student-athlete writers to be the way we work with student-athlete writers.
But washing their hands of the lawsuit by the former UNC players, the NCAA gave themselves a PR black-eye but gave us an opening to better work with all our students.