SAN DIEGO - AUGUST 14: Defensive end Julius Peppers #90 of the Chicago Bears looks on during the game with the San Diego Chargers on August 14 2010 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego California. The Chargers won 25-10. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
UNC athletics is under fire again, this time for allegations of academic impropriety that may stretch back for more than a decade. If the NCAA finds proof, the Heels should be punished. But let's not get too hysterical about all this.
A few points up front:
1. I'm a lifelong UNC fan.
2. I didn't go to Carolina, so I don't feel any attachment to the academic side of things.
3. In general, if any D-1 program is shuttling superstars through bogus classes, the NCAA should investigate, and if there's proof, that school should be punished.
4. But if the above scenario happened, would you find that surprising?
That last point is the main thing that bugs me with everything that's happened surrounding North Carolina the past few weeks. In case you've missed it, there have been allegations that a long line of UNC football players (and maybe basketball players) were given passing grades in African American studies classes they never attended. Or something. Basically, they didn't do coursework and got good grades anyway.
So now there's another big scandal to talk about, and another excuse to feign disbelief and get outraged and indignant and horrified, because that's just the way sportswriters write about these things. I promised myself I wasn't going to read any of it, but after three friends sent me one of the shoutier takes on the situation, I broke down and gave it a chance.
"My sister graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill and loved the school so much that she still lives nearby," Gregg Doyel writes at CBS Sports. "I didn't want to believe this school -- her school -- could be so shameful."
Oh come on, do we really have to do this?
To anyone who wants to pretend this is a SHOCKING NIGHTMARE: You know when I learned that college athletes get all kinds of shady academic benefits? WHEN I WAS IN COLLEGE.
I went to Boston College, a school with stricter academic standards than most and less pressure to win than most other big time programs. Even there, athletes could reschedule exams at will, had tutors on call to help them write term papers, and probably/definitely got favorable treatment from a few professors on campus. Nothing illegal or even close to illegal, just ... Our academic experience wasn't the same. This is what bugs me most about this shocked tone of all the vigilante journalism surrounding college sports. Did these people ever go to college? Have they ever spoken to athletes? Have any of these college sports reporters ever followed college sports?
Like this from AOL Fanhouse:
Think about that: the athletic department and a department of academics conspiring to keep students eligible so they can play games. This isn’t high school, everyone. This is one of the most respected academic institutions in the world cheating to keep athletes eligible.
Seriously? That paragraph's not sarcasm?
I'm not saying every college athlete piles up credits in bogus classes, or that having tutors to help write papers is the same as (apparently) getting free grades from a rogue professor. But given the way big time college sports operate, it shouldn't be shocking that this happened at Carolina, and similar systems are probably in place at a lot of other schools, too.
If the NCAA wants to get involved, they should get involved and hammer away. If there's proof that UNC's football and basketball program instigated all this, Carolina deserves to be punished.
But for the rest of us, instead of all this sanctimonious whining from naive columnists and rabid NC State fans -- isn't it funny that the best thing to happen to NC State sports fans in a quarter century is an academic scandal at Carolina? -- let's try to be adults about this. What happened at Carolina is an extreme example of what happens at big time schools everywhere.
It's sucks, too, because most of the Carolina players skating through those bullshit classes didn't end up in the NFL. This is how so many college athletes wind up screwed: they're funneled into easy, mostly useless classes, and as soon as their eligibility's up, they're left fending for themselves without having ever really learned anything in school.
If the argument for not paying athletes is "they get a free education!" then this scandal's an ideal rebuttal. It's a microcosm of misplaced priorities that exist everywhere in big time college sports. And especially with the insane demands of playing varsity football in major conferences, I don't blame any student athletes taking the easiest classes they can and taking whatever help they can find, legal or not. The schedule demands alone make the choice all but inevitable.
So no, I don't feel any "shame" as a UNC fan knowing that Julius Peppers wasn't necessarily taking legit classes. He signed a $90 million contract a few years ago, and things have turned out alright.
But if we're going to have a screechy, preachy conversation about academics over the next few weeks, it should be about all the players who aren't Julius Peppers. The ones who went to school basically majoring in football, only to turn around five years later without any skillset for life after sports. And we're all partly complicit in the system that leaves those kids clueless. Fans put pressure on teams to win, teams put pressure on kids to put football or basketball first, and classes become a formality next to the religious experience on Saturdays. If you want to get MAD and SERIOUS about anything, we all play a role in creating the African American Studies department at UNC and a hundred sham majors at other schools around the country, and that's definitely a little shameful.
But then, on the other hand ... I was an immature, directionless comm major in college, and woke up senior year having spent fours years addicted to EA Sports' NCAA Football games, avoiding schoolwork at every turn, taking mostly easy classes. So what's the real difference? Plenty of other kids may have loved college and worked like crazy while they were, but it took graduating school for me to get serious about applying myself.
Once you start honestly digging into the moral responsibility of college sports to promote academics, it requires getting honest about college academics, in general.
College is what any 18-year-old wants to make of it, and it's never going change everyone's life, because 18-year-olds are generally pretty immature and directionless regardless. So, if any star athletes aren't pursuing a "real" academic education during their time on campus ... Well, they're certainly not the only ones, and it's not necessarily the end of the world. They'll probably wind up smarter than most sportswriters regardless.
For more on UNC football, visit North Carolina blog Carolina March.
While we’re here, let’s watch some of the many fine college football videos from SB Nation’s YouTube channel: