CHEATED: Our Response To The UNC Scandal And Beyond, Part 1

October 20th, 2015 | by Karen Gross
CHEATED: Our Response To The UNC Scandal And Beyond, Part 1


I recently completed Jay Smith and Mary Willingham’s relatively new book, Cheated: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-Time College Sports (2015). Well, it is quite the read. Even if only half of the details are accurate (and I have no reason to suspect inaccuracies but you never can be too sure), the book’s depiction of wrongdoing in collegiate athletics at UNC and beyond is distressing.

From no-show classes to paper courses with virtually no faculty supervision and often literally no quality papers being written, from athletes admitted to UNC with weak academic preparation to courses and schedules designed to enable athletes to meet the NCAA mandated academic progress standard. Athletic and academic personnel knew what was happening in terms of breaches of academic integrity but kept silent to enable athletics to remain sports’ eligible to gifts, game attendance tickets and travel benefits, the list of problematic conduct is striking.

Seemingly smart folks perpetuated an approach to the “big money” sports (as opposed to Olympic sports) that leaves one wondering how these well-educated folks got so derailed.  Was it just money?  Was it their jobs at risk?  Was it their commitment to the student-athletes (with the focus on athletes)?

For me, the entire UNC scandal is summed up by reading and reviewing the UNC academic transcript of now pro football player Julius Peppers. (Forget the complex issue of how this document was made public and why.)  It is hard to read it and not cringe.  Yes, lots of people have cheated in the UNC tale but the student-athletes, like Julius, were truly “cheated” out of a meaningful education.


In one review of the book, the reviewer makes this observation,“…it’s not likely that Cheated will be high on the reading lists for presidents and provosts of colleges and universities supporting big-time football and men’s basketball programs. Looking the other way has been a vital part of their modus operandi and job security.”  Another review in the Wall Street Journal makes this observation: “Cynicism regarding athletics and education pervades the big-college system.” One reviewer makes the point that, as the book itself notes in detail, UNC was not alone in its approach to moneyed collegiate sports and athletes within those sports.

So, are there solutions, doable solutions that will alter the landscape in a positive way? The answer is yes but not in the ways one might expect. In their book, Smith and Willingham suggest that the key money sports on campuses be, in essence, “spun off.” Separation is the solution. Part of the benefits’ package to the participating “college-related” athletes could be an education but there would be a separation of the words “student” from “athlete.”  Other suggestions have been proffered for how to improve collegiate athletics in the high profile sports including paying players as employees, unionizing players and changes to and within the NCAA.  

I have another approach to high profile collegiate sports – across the Divisions. It is the opposite of separation and spinning; it is about inclusion and integration.  It is about keeping collegiate sports not eradicating them.  My suggested approach, which surely can be tweaked and improved, is outside the proverbial box. It will require changes within the NCAA (alright, that’s not so easy and is a real hurdle for many reasons).

I should note upfront that I appreciate it will generate controversy on all levels. But, it is not as if there is an absence of controversy now. It is not as if we are living in a panacea today.  And, these suggestions rest on the assumption that the toothpaste is out of the proverbial tube; eliminating collegiate athletics (and its revenue) is not going to happen in my lifetime for yours.

I start with certain positive assumptions.  And yes, I know: there are negatives too.

1) There are many oft-missed benefits that can be gained by student-athletes attending a college/university. Some “students” find their way first on a court or a field.  Indeed, some student-athletes might never have even gone to college were it not for athletics.  Just being there has value.  See more below.

2) Student-athletes, even those who have poor academic preparation, can benefit from gain from being at a college or university.  Not everything that is learned in higher ed occurs in the classroom.  As I used to say repeatedly on the campus where I was located: learning happens in many places and spaces of which the classroom is but one. There is much to be gained from living in a community that cares about the life of the mind (even for those who may not).  There is something to be gained from seeing other students studying and making good decisions. There are lectures and concerts.  There are faculty and staff whom one can see as role models.  There are fellow non-athlete students with whom one can engage.  The list is long. I recall the theatre example so eloquently described in Cheated.

3) Colleges and universities provide a place to sleep and food to eat and a location to exercise. They have supportive professional personnel who encourage student success.  So, if you grew up in a fractured or violent home or had a curdled childhood, a roof, food, and stable adults are big plusses.

4) Non-athletes (and not just “geeks”) can benefit from being around students who are athletes.  They can see the discipline, the dedication to sports, the repetition needed for success, the many ways success can be defined. Their stereotypes of “dumb jocks” can be contextualized.

5) Non-athletes, faculty and staff can come to appreciate that those who participate in sports with a helmet (think football and hockey and ski racing) or occur on a court (think basketball) are unintelligent and uninterested in larger social issues or literature or science.  Seriously, some folks on a campus treat helmet sport student-athletes as if they are academically deficient.  To be sure some are but some are not.  Why presume they lack intelligence?

6) There is much to be said that is negative about campus culture and some of that is related to athletics.  Just read about the sexual assaults, the non-sexual assaults, the alcohol overuse and the other similar excessive behaviors.  True.  But, there are enormous positives to athletics on campuses.  Athletics builds campus pride; it builds community; it fosters teamwork; it creates bonds across races and ethnicities.  It enables faculty and staff to see students who struggle in a classroom or living and learning community thrive in another setting.

7) But for college, where would some of these “poorly prepared big money sport athletes” go?  Now, I fully understand that most are not going pro (and the NCAA ads ring in my ears on this one).  But, were it not for college, would they be in a better place?  What would they be doing?  With whom would they be hanging out?  What would they be accomplishing?  Sure, some would be working and doing fine.  Others would be floundering.  Others might lead the life of Riley.

8) Learning happens in many ways; absorption is one method. Think about it this way.  If you go to a foreign nation and do not know the language and are unfamiliar with the culture, you can learn by just being there.  You can watch and listen and try.  You can venture outside your own familiar approaches.  You can eat things you did not eat before; you can walk on cobblestones; you can see true history in buildings built become America was “discovered.” (Yes, it was home to Native Americans and discovered centuries ago.)  Work with me here and just think about student-athletes for whom college/university truly is a foreign land.

Now, with these assumptions in mind, here are some strategies to alter how we deal with the moneyed sports on campuses – ways that do not involve cheating and denial of opportunity, ways that do not extinguish revenue or harm human capital.  There are ways for collegiate athletics – even those big dollar generating sports – to work.  But, we need to do more than rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.  We need to be bold.


UPDATE: The continuation of this article is available here.

About Karen Gross
Karen Gross is the former President of Southern Vermont College, an NCAA DIII institution fielding 13 teams. She was the president of the college's Athletic Conference, the NECC. She also served on the NCAA DIII Presidents' Advisory Council. A lawyer by training, she represented an NFL quarterback (decades ago) and is a serious professional and college sports fan. She currently is senior counsel to a crisis management firm in DC where she specializes in education. A Red Sox fan, she knows a lot about losing and winning. Her son, now a professor, is a former NCAA Division I athlete.

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