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I'm still working my way through a big stack of books here in my offices, books I swore I'd finish reading once, you know, things settled down a bit, something that stubbornly refused to happen this summer. I'm not sure if it ever will.
But I did manage to finally steal enough time to finish a book I've been looking forward to for months, Andy Thomason's Discredited: The UNC Scandal and College Athletics' Amateur Ideal.
Thomason, an assistant managing editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, has been tracking this story since his undergraduate days, and knows the ins and outs better than almost anybody. He was one of our first guests on Going For Two, and that conversation made me even more interested to read the book and really understand what happened.
Discredited is not a long book, about 150 pages, and could be knocked out over a weekend. But even though it's a quick read, it's a difficult one to sum up with a few pithy quotes. This scandal wasn't nearly as straightforward as many other famous college sports scandals, and leaves a thoughtful reader with plenty of questions.
I wanted to share a few of those highlights, since these questions are especially important now, as we prepare to reimagine what college sports looks like in this country.
This wasn't really a scandal about coaches or bagmen. It's very much an administrative drama.
The key players in this story aren't the type of folks that normally play central roles in a major college sports scandal. Butch Davis, the UNC football coach, is eventually fired, but is hardly the focal point of the investigations. Athletic Director Dick Baddour eventually resigns, but he isn't the focus of the investigations either. Boosters, shady businessmen, recruiting operations directors...they're not really involved.
Instead, the central figures are professors, and even more critically, academic support specialists and department secretaries. The engines behind the entire 'paper class' scandal were not football coaches hell-bent on victory at any cost, but administrators making under $50,000.
How is this even possible? You'd understand if you've spent much time inside major state research university
Under the best of circumstances, higher education can be inefficient and dizzyingly complex. That becomes even harder at massive, state flagship-type universities like UNC.
With 30,000 students, supported by a small city worth of subcommittees, rules, procedures and customs, simple tasks like "figuring out what to take and when in order to actually graduate" can be very difficult. As the university grows, and the course catalog grows and various requirements grow, the supporting bureaucracy grows right along with it, making it necessary to hire staffers solely to help navigate students through the morass of red tape needed to get a diploma.
Those specialists aren't just for athletes. Take it from me, a guy that went to a school of 50,000+ with a name like Matt Brown (my email at Ohio State? Brown.2600. I wasn't just a number....I was a very big number.). But they're especially important for athletes, since their massive time commitments limit when they can actually take classes.
If there is somebody who spends their entire professional life figuring how the most efficient path for an athlete to study and graduate, that person can become very powerful. If that same person, say, a secretary, also has power and influence over when a professor or instructor might teach, well, they might just become as powerful as a dean.
But were those specialists the bad guys in this story? Probably not
Thomason makes it clear that he doesn't believe this story, which clearly led to bad outcomes, had a master villain. A fellow academic in the much-maligned African-American Studies Department would describe what happened as not the "result of a cabal of evil people, but good people who thought they were acting ethically because they were working within an unethical system." My reading of the book suggests that Thomason agrees with that analysis.
The real culprit, argued here, is amateurism, or least how UNC defined it.
Like virtually every other D-I school, UNC admitted athletes that would not warrant admission based on their academic accomplishments alone. But because of the massive time commitments needed to compete in their sports, those athletes were not able to get the academic support they needed to catch up to their peers. The coaches, staffers, support specialists, and even professors knew that earning a college degree and remaining eligible had the best chance of giving them a shot at success later in life, and worked to keep the athletes on the right side of eligible.
The system creates incentives for staffers to seek out the most flexible and least challenging academic disciplines possible. This leads to "academic clustering", a practice common across multiple sports all over D-I, where athletes are steered into specific majors, or even specific courses. Those classes may be perfectly legitimate, but it isn't an accident if you see a third of a football roster with a single major.
At UNC, that process went even further, as athletes were encouraged to not just take classes that might be easier to pass, but independent studies, courses that wouldn't require an athlete to attend any lectures or go to any classes. All they would need to do in order to earn credit would be to write a paper and work with a specific professor on a one-on-one basis.
Even that could very well be an above-board idea. Few would argue that it's a bad thing for schools to create unique options for students to complete meaningful work should their circumstances require less-traditional schedules. Heck, I did it myself during my undergraduate career. But reading the book, it's not hard to see how the slope becomes more and more slippery, until the athlete isn't taking a real class at all, even though nobody explicitly sought out to create this system.
Who is supposed to stop this, exactly?
UNC memorably, albeit cynically, argued that the NCAA couldn't punish the school for the paper classes. After all, more than half of the students who took these courses weren't athletes at all, and if the fraudulent classes were available to any student (and sometimes recommended by advisors to non-athletes), how could they be an impermissible benefit? The NCAA didn't have jurisdiction over determining if a specific course was legitimate or not. The argument won UNC no admirers, but it did win the day.
But if the NCAA can't, or won't, punish a school for perpetuating academic fraud, who will, exactly?
Theoretically, the school's accrediting body could levy some sort of punishment. But despite two different highly publicized reports on the academic fraud, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges elected to only give UNC a year's probation, a slap on the wrist so weak that it begs the question of what it would require for a major state university to actually face significant penalties.
The federal government is unwilling, if not unable, to punish state schools for failing to provide legitimate coursework, and it seems impossible to imagine a statehouse actually really punishing a flagship school, unless an NC State grad suddenly wins every state and local election.
Absent any sort of check from a government or trade body, the only other institution capable of holding a school accountable is the general public. At some point, reformers hoped, alumni and statewide residents would be willing to trade potential athletic victory in the name of regaining the morals and principle behind higher education...right?
lmao no of course not. That wasn't true in 1929 and it isn't true now. Even as the general public becomes aware of athletic scandal, their attitude typically veers closer to this.
Who, exactly, is supposed to prevent this sort of thing from happening again?
This ought to be a key question heading into NCAA reform
Like most sportswriters under 40, I simply do not have the reservoir of indignation required to muster up any feelings about an athlete getting some money under the table. I don't think it really will, but even if NIL evolves to the point where it becomes an overt bidding war over talent, well, I'll be okay with that. Secure that bag.
But the central idea behind not paying athletes is this idea that their real compensation is their college education.
Whether athletes are amateurs or not, if a college education is supposed to be a central part of that compensation package...shouldn't we care if that education is actually legitimate? I think we should!
So much of the athlete reform movement over the last two years has centered on the economic exploitation of the college athlete, a movement that has culminated in athletes now being able to take advantage of their NIL. I think that's great. It's a major victory and accomplishment, one even most athletic administrators I talk to agree is a win for everybody.
My hope, as we look towards a new NCAA constitution and a new way of looking at college sports, that the same energy applied towards economic justice can be brought towards academic justice. All college students, including (and perhaps especially) college athletes, deserve a meaningful and legitimate educational experience, not simply a stamp and a diploma.
As Thomason's book shows, figuring out how to get there requires some difficult questions without easy answers. But they're worth grappling with urgency and fervor.
This was an important read...but I hope there's never a sequel.
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