In the UNC scandal, a cruel subtext of exploitation

By Aaron Leibowitz

In December of 1968, the Black Student Movement at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill presented a list of 23 demands to Chancellor Carlyle Sitterson. Among them were increased admission of black students, who comprised 1.7 percent of UNC’s enrollment; better treatment of non-academic employees, namely food service workers on the verge of a strike; and the creation of a department of African and Afro-American Studies.

Sitterson balked at these demands, insisting that he could not “provide unique treatment for any single race, color or creed.” (Such is the language of racism.) Protests and sit-ins followed, and Sitterson felt heavy pressure from faculty and students — including Charlie Scott and Bill Chamberlain, the school’s first two black basketball players, who met with Sitterson to express their support for the 23 demands. By 1970, the Department of African and Afro-American Studies had been created at UNC. Similar movements on campuses across the country spawned hundreds of black studies programs and departments over a five-year span.

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When considering the academic scandal at UNC that is currently rocking the college sports world, the school’s legacy of resistance and struggle must not be ignored. It especially must not be ignored as protests hit Chapel Hill on Wednesday — this time, not to demand a black studies department, but rather to express outrage at the hijacking of that department as a tool in the big-time college sports machine.

Here’s the Sparknotes version of what happened. A report commissioned by UNC and released last week revealed that athletes were encouraged to take fraudulent courses — so-called “paper classes” — in order to boost their GPAs and remain eligible to play. These classes never met, involved zero interaction with faculty and required just one 10-page paper, which many students plagiarized. An administrator named Debby Crowder oversaw the classes and gave athletes the grades they needed to maintain eligibility. From 1993 to 2011 the classes were taken by about 3,100 students, almost half of them athletes and about half of those athletes football players. Twelve percent were men’s basketball players. The investigation, led by D.C. big-shot Kenneth Wainstein, marked the culmination of a scandal that had been brewing for three years.

But perhaps the most bitter pill to swallow was this one: The paper classes were all offered within UNC’s Department of African and Afro-American Studies. A department born out of the struggle for black liberation — out of the demand for a fair share of economic and academic resources — was exploited by UNC to uphold an NCAA system that robs athletes, disproportionately black, of their earned wealth, and denies them the opportunity for a legitimate education.

It’s a deadly one-two punch: With a Joe Frazier left hook, the NCAA extracts every penny its athletes generate, and with a Mike Tyson uppercut, it turns the supposed gift of an academic scholarship into a farce. (Not to mention the scholarships don’t always pay for the full cost of attending school and can be terminated if an athlete gets injured.) In this case, UNC played the role of facilitator.

The NCAA will attempt to treat this scandal as an isolated incident, scolding the naughty administrators at UNC for failing to remember that “student-athletes” are students first, and likely leveling sanctions against the school’s athletic program. On Monday, NCAA president Mark Emmert came forward with his obligatory, blubbering cry of ‘How could they?!’

“This is a case that potentially strikes at the heart of what higher education is about,” Emmert said. “Universities are supposed to take absolutely most seriously the education of their students, right? I mean, that’s why they exist, that’s their function in life. … I look at these facts, like everyone, and I find them shocking.”

The nerve required of Emmert to let these words pass his lips cannot be understated. A man whose organization has created an irremovable stain on the sanctity of higher education in the United States is now attempting to lecture us on the sanctity of higher education in the United States. That, of course, is the cruel irony of the NCAA playing judge, jury and executioner each time a school violates its rules.

Unfortunately for Mr. Emmert, history is a damning device. It reminds us, for one, that the term “student-athlete” was invented by the NCAA for its own purposes in the 1950s. More specifically, the student-athlete tag ensured that the widow of Ray Dennison, who died from a head injury sustained while playing football for the Fort Lewis A&M Aggies, could not receive workers’-compensation death benefits.

We can draw a straight line from that case to the present-day efforts of the NCAA to prevent Kain Colter and the Northwestern football team from forming a college athletes’ union. College athletes, particularly in Division I football and men’s basketball, help produce billions of dollars for their universities and the NCAA, but until they’re classified as employees — as long as they’re still “student-athletes” — they will continue to see none of the profits.

In turn, these academic scandals will continue to arise. They are the natural upshot of a system in which money and entertainment trump all, and where playing a sport requires the same type of commitment as a full-time job. Surely, what Crowder and others carried out at UNC is reprehensible, but bogus classes for big-time college athletes can likely be found in all 50 states.

Soon enough, the NCAA will roll through Tobacco Road to restore symbolic order with an iron fist. But the gesture will be an empty one, the equivalent, as Dave Zirin said, “of getting Tony Soprano to take care of the neighborhood drug dealer.” The NCAA is rotten to the core, and the anti-black undertones of its operation become clear as soon as you start peeling back the layers of each incident. In the case of UNC, the racism sits barely beneath the surface.

Luckily, history also tells us that campuses won’t stand for this injustice, especially not in a department that only exists thanks to the sweat and tears of former students. At UNC, the Department of African and Afro-American Studies belongs not to Mark Emmert, and certainly not to an administration that has attempted to cheapen its integrity.

That department belongs to the students and faculty who fought to make it a reality. It belongs to Charlie Scott and Bill Chamberlain and all the college athletes who deserve better.

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