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UNC Gives Free Pass To Athletes: Touchdowns Before GPA?

Steven Lee |
April 7, 2014 | 12:30 p.m. PDT


Are student athletes getting a solid education? (Tony Alter, Creative Commons)
Are student athletes getting a solid education? (Tony Alter, Creative Commons)
For many Trojans, fall semester is just another way of saying football season. Seeing USC absolutely packed with tailgaters as fans swarm the Coliseum is quite a sight to see. This passion, however, is found not just in football and not just at USC. Whether you’re arranging your March Madness brackets or storming the field after a clutch win, collegiate sports is an integral part of college culture. 

But before you start breaking out your cardinal and gold apparel while singing the fight song, you should really consider what all this mayhem is doing to athletes, or rather what it is not. One thing it’s not doing for athletes at the University of North Carolina is providing them with a solid education. 

A recent scandal shows how classes are arranged at UNC to allow players to pass, even with way below expected performance. Mary Willingham, former learning specialist and the one who exposed UNC’s actions, talks about how athletes were allowed to enroll in so called “paper” classes that they did not have to physically attend and could simply write take-home essays.

The essay Willingham used as an example is a single paragraph long and evaluated level at of writing proficiency way below college standards. Willingham goes on to say that some athletes are reading at a second or third grade level and that this particular student went on to receive an A- in the class.

While this particular situation happened at UNC, can a very similar mechanism not be in play here at USC as well? Is USC, a football-focused school, actually living up to its mission statement when it says: “Our first priority as faculty and staff is the education of our students, from freshman to post-doctoral"?

Admittedly, it doesn’t seem to be the exact same situation here at USC as I have personally seen coaches come around to make sure that players are attending classes. But then again, I’m not saying that this is a USC problem or even a UNC problem, but rather a problem with the system as a whole.

Of course, it would be terrible to see the star quarter back or the freshmen phenom point guard be sidelined because of an academic ineligibility; indeed, it goes against a large part of college culture. Also for many of the top athletes, coming to college is simply an act of appeasing NFL or NBA regulations before they can get drafted, and thus prioritizing academics is just not a smart investment in terms of their athletic careers. 

But honestly, what are we telling the “student” athletes? That making the school money is more important than receiving a quality education and possibly becoming a better person? For athletes that aren’t going to get drafted by high-paying professional teams, or athletes that could get injured, how is their time at college helping them prepare for the real world?

I think as an institution, universities such as UNC have an obligation to provide the athletes with first and foremost a college-level education. As Deaunte Williams, former UNC defensive back, said regarding his academic advisors:

“Their job isn’t necessarily to make Deaunte Williams a better person, a smarter person. Their job is necessarily to make sure I’m eligible to play.”

The implications are loud and clear; college athletes are being handed a free pass so that they can earn the university and the NCAA money by playing. The players are essentially being told that nothing is more important than their athletic performance. 

And if all the university expects is athletic performance, then that is all they are going to receive, as shown by the low level of writing proficiency displayed by the UNC athlete.

I feel the most straight forward solution would be to simply expect more academically from the athletes. Obviously it would be difficult for athletes to maintain a spectacular GPA while balancing all of the practice, travel and game time they have to attend, but with priority registration, special academic advisers and extra tutoring, I feel that expecting a C-average is more than reasonable. 

It ultimately lies in the hands of the administration: is the next championship title so important that you’re willing to throw away the educational standards of class after class of student athletes? If this problem is not addressed soon, there will be generations of players like Matt Leinart who take just one ballroom dancing class in order to stay an extra year. Maybe Leinart is a different case, as a Heisman trophy winner, but what about everyone else?

So I ask the provosts and administrators of UNC, USC and beyond: is the ability to perform on a field that much more important than the ability to perform in the classroom? 


Reach Contributor Steven Lee here.



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