College Football Is Back, and the Scandals Seem to Be Hidden

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UNC takes on Clemson at Kenan Memorial Stadium, Chapel Hill, N.C., September 28, 2019. (Nell Redmond/USA Today Sports/Reuters)

Scandals involving star players who barely, if at all, fit the description “student-athlete” have often roiled the big sports schools. A decade ago, UNC opened its season under a cloud, as whistleblowers and reporters had dug out the story that many football and basketball players over decades had benefited from fake courses and “help” that amounted to cheating to keep them eligible. As this year’s football season opens, there don’t seem to be any scandals making headlines, but does that mean that everything is fine?

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A new book by journalist (and UNC grad) Andy Thomason titled Discredited recounts the university’s scandal and its aftermath. In today’s Martin Center article, I discuss the book and consider whether the “student-athlete” model is defensible.

Thomason ably takes readers through the ugly details of the UNC scandal, which was all the more shocking because UNC had long created the illusion that it was above reproach with its sports programs. Its “Carolina Way” was supposedly pure. All the athletes really belonged in college and they got real college educations. But that wasn’t even close to the truth.

When the story broke, UNC first went defensive, pledging to get to the bottom of things. Some people, including the football coach, were fired. The chancellor resigned. A series of investigations showed deep corruption. The university feared severe punishment from the NCAA and repercussions from its accrediting agency. But when it received a slap on the wrist from the NCAA and nothing at all from Southern states, it went on the offensive against the whistleblower.

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UNC promised to be good. No more admitting of players whose academic level was at a middle-school level; no more cheating to get them through their classes. So things are good. The university gets top-flight teams and the players get their college degrees, thus enabling them to go on to a successful life.

But there’s still trouble. Many of the players are still very weak academically and get degrees that won’t do much for them in the job market. Underemployment among college grads generally is high and is probably much higher for sports players who didn’t make it into pro ranks. College education is oversold as a means of “making it” in life, and that’s particularly true for academically poor students who are so busy with their sports that they couldn’t devote much time to coursework even if they wanted to. It’s a scandal whether or not there is some headline “scandal.”

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