For those of us raised outside the US, the college athletics system has always seemed curiously serious, almost professional. Players are often treated like royalty, huge crowds attend games, and the media interest in ‘student’ athletes seems to draw little distinction between amateur college players and the pros in the major leagues. That most of these students are also working towards degrees in various fields (though clearly not all fields) is considered a given, though questions about how they can do this while training and traveling as athletes tend to be brushed aside. Athletic teams are expected at all major universities and the ties with alumni fundraising are undeniable. As long as people feel good, the athletes don’t forget they are students first, and more than a few sports are supported, what’s not to like?
Well, the recent scandals at Penn and UNC suggest the story is not quite so rosy. Though different in nature, they both point to the problems of money corrupting the values of public universities. UNC’s revelation that more than 3000 students over 18 years had participated in what is now called a ‘shadow curriculum’, getting easy grades for coursework that was, to all intents and purposes, of no educational value just so they could stay in school to participate in athletics is being treated with all the shock-horror reaction the media can muster. But is anyone really surprised? I mean, this was going on for over a decade. It involved a Professor of Ethics. There was a network of advisers, faculty and coaches who enabled it. And now people ask if this is an isolated case? Yeah right. As Brian Roberts, Professor of Sports Law at IU commented, the only real distinguishing issue here is ‘they just got caught’.
The real concern for some of us is the fact that good faculty stand by and let this kind of corruption occur. And the ‘we didn’t know’ defense won’t wash. This scandal originated, according to the Wainstein report, in an academic program. Last April, the retired UNC faculty group wrote an open letter through the alumni association asking why current faculty were so silent on this matter, accusing them of abdicating responsibility as a faculty. After combing through more than 1.6 million emails, the full extent of murky boundaries between academics and athletics is coming to light and it’s hard to really believe that nobody outside of the named culprits actually knew what was happening. One suspects that among the real reasons for faculty silence on such matters might be the belief that few people in the upper administrations of a university want to admit that dubious practices are occurring or to deal with the fall-out from well-resourced alumni and power brokers who are quite happy to maintain the status quo. In such a context, what faculty member wants to blow whistles or be labelled a trouble-maker. Pity, but one imagined that was what tenure might usefully be seen as protecting.
We live in an age of increasing compliance, but regulatory oversight cannot be a surrogate for correct behavior. And when education has been devalued to the point that a degree is a commodity item provided by an organization with a sport-based business model then yes, one can rightly ask, where were those tenured faculty? Cowed by choice or by context, this is another example of the corrupting influence of non-educational forces on the academy. When the tenured stand for nothing except their own career comfort then we might truly ask if the tenure system is itself broken?