Former UNC athletes Rashanda McCants and Devon Ramsey have filed a class action lawsuit against the University of North Carolina for basically failing to provide solid academics with sound instruction. Translated, that means that they allege that the UNC did everything to keep them eligible without caring enough about progress toward a meaningful degree, that is, one that non-athletes or non-revenue athletes typically get.
This strikes me as the type of lawsuit UNC and NCAA Division 1 institutions will throw everything they have to defend themselves. The stakes are large, and the number of possible defendants huge. What these plaintiffs essentially are arguing is that they were there to help the coaches keep their jobs or advance their careers and that staying eligible to win the next game was more important to the school than their taking courses that would have them progress to a degree (and, at that, in something other than landscape architecture for basketball courts). The counter-argument is that the schools provided these athletes with scholarships and that they bore no small measure of personal responsibility to work with all of the advisors they had at their disposal to work on an academic plan that would lead to the degree of their choice. And, the argument goes, if they didn't do that, they have no one to blame but themselves and either their lack of academic ability or academic ambition. The icing on the cake of that argument is: "where is their own personal responsibility?"
Of course, the answer to that question is not that easy, not with promises that were dangled during recruiting, especially to poor kids from low-income and/or single-parent families that the coaches treat the players like family and that they would ensure that the recruit would graduate. Add to that cocktail the fact that scholarship are one-year renewable, which means that coaches under tremendous pressure to, say, beat Duke, will recruit kids that might be at the margins on occasion and then do things to keep them eligible instead of helping them get degrees in teaching, engineering or management. (As an aside, I have a friend who pays full freight for his son to play at a DIII school, where the coach advises the kids what courses to take so that they can be done by noon and work with the strength-and-conditioning coaches. If that happens at DIII, one can only imagine what might go on at some DI schools).
Atop that, there are all of the scandals that have gone on at Carolina, allegedly a "public" Ivy, with a sterling reputation polished by none other than coaching legend Dean Smith. Yet, all of the headlines in the past year paint a picture of an academic version of "The Jerry Springer Show" -- if proven. And, if true, if stuff like that could transpire at such a hallowed place as UNC, imagine what else could go on at other schools, all in the name of school spirit, funding the athletic program, golden-calf worship and whatever else the alums and boosters want to call it.
I have never met the plaintiffs and get skeptical about class-action lawsuits given all of the fraud that took place (and apparently continues to do so) in asbestos-related cases (which tarnishes the names of the good plaintiffs lawyers who have brought legitimate cases over the years). That said, I have wondered -- after reading various accounts at different schools -- about all of the energy that goes into these programs, from wooing kids with endless texts and handwritten letters to trying to seeing whether they qualify academically to keeping them eligible once they get there. Now, it could be the case that some of these kids do not belong in college, either because they aren't interested in school or because their academic records suggests that perhaps they should be doing something else. Once they are admitted, however, the school seems to owe them something more than the scholarship that they give them. It seems to owe them a decent chance to have the time to take good courses -- the courses everyone else takes -- and to graduate in majors that everyone else pick.
There are a lot of bad facts out there, single data points that do not combine to form trends, as everyone's case surely is different. But all of the smoke around hallowed Carolina suggests that something was awry for a long time and ran deep within the Carolina blue culture. The NCAA investigation and potential sanctions are a big enough problem, but this lawsuit hits at the core of what a student-athlete is or is not, should or should not be, and should or not not be accountable for. There is, somewhere, a baseline beyond the dollars and cents of the scholarship that a university should provide, and, given all universities' publicly stated missions about doing good, that they owe to the kids they bring in, especially with kids from backgrounds where no one went to college or can guide them as to what to expect.
Otherwise, even with the scholarship, room and board, it's exploitation -- for commercial gain and so that a bunch of alumni can come back and feel better about themselves because U beats State, beats the snooty private U in the state, can win the conference and go onto the post-season.
And littered on the sidelines, among the torn-off tape, torn jerseys and broken cleats are the lives of the kids who might have acted entitled and special because of their own gifts, but who also were too young and perhaps too poor to know any better, and, who, at the core, trusted the people making the recruiting pitch that there was a happily ever after out there. But the alums and the locals and all of the people who enjoy the end product don't see all, the same way that they enjoy sausage but perhaps would be a bit sick to their stomachs if they saw it made. We're not just talking about sport and fun and entertainment and competition, we're talking about a disproportionate amount of money at some schools spent on very few kids and then failing to help them progress with their lives.
I hope that's not the case, especially not at a place as respected heretofore as UNC, but if it is, then shame on UNC, shame on the administration, shame on the alums and shame on all of us. Because if the pushing through of kids without any caring about substantive skill building happened there, then it could happen anywhere and probably has. We read about Dexter Manley, and we read in "ESPN the Magazine" about some kids at Oklahoma State. And now we're reading about UNC.
Let's remember that these are the lives of young adults, first and foremost, and that the games played are games that kids play. Too many times, though, the adults get involved and mess them up.
Let's hope that this is not what happened at UNC. And regardless of whether it did, let's hope that the powers that be at all colleges turn this problem into an opportunity to benefit scholarship athletes everywhere. Yes, the scholarship is a gift and a great thing, but not when it's used to churn and burn young people.