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Wednesday, September 4, 2013
UNC panel recommendations revealing

By Eamonn Brennan

North Carolina's athletics department has not had a very good year. Actually, check that: UNC athletics has not had a very good five years. I'm not talking about its teams' performance, which has been par for the respective course. No, I mean athletics program itself from Julius Peppers' transcript to the Butch Davis football mess to the protracted examination (and re-examination, and re-re-examination) of the Afro and African-American Studies' department's seemingly too-friendly ties with athletics to the public faculty criticism all the way up to this summer's P.J. Hairston saga. The cumulative effect of all this turmoil has drenched a proud athletics program at a proud public university in a thoroughly sketchy light.

At best, a previously pristine veneer has been chipped. At worst, the Tar Heels have provided examples of everything everybody (shady classes, institutional deference to sports, fancy cars for basketball stars provided by mysterious third parties) loathes about college athletics, all in one place. It's not a good look.

In Chapel Hill and the surrounding lowlands, this existential crisis (and the various inquiries and panels assembled to audit it) has produced plenty of discussion. Some have been brutally honest, others too willing to shrug problems away, but the discussion itself counts as a step in the right direction a necessary open dialogue about sports' place in university life, and the competing interests therein.

This discussion remains ongoing. Indeed, just this week, an independent panel led by Association of American Universities President Hunter Rawlings published a list of 28 recommendations These are some of the 28 recommendations on "how to better balance academics and athletics" at UNC, the Charlotte Observer reported Wednesday.

Some of the Rawlings panel's recommendations are semi-silly academic noodling the creation of a "formal consortium of like-minded universities with similar academic standards to discuss creative solutions to problems in academics" sounds like thought-leader speak for "an excuse to go to a resort in Aspen, Co. and argue with other academics for a week." Likewise, No. 26, which recommends UNC "consider reducing the number of hours student-athletes devote to sports," doesn't exactly speak truth to power. There are a lot of bullet points like that. Ideas like "mandatory education program for coaches," "final decision-making authority" for admissions residing in the hands of actual university admissions officers, holding student-athletes are held to the same standards as other students, and an establishing "standards relating to medical care provided to athletes" are so obvious they shouldn't even need to be stated. You guys are doing that stuff already, right?

Still there are some really interesting, even borderline revolutionary, ideas in the mix. One calls for conferences or the NCAA to "establish spending caps on specific sports for team operating expenses." Another suggests a revision of NCAA tournament and college postseason revenue dispersal that would tie financial rewards for on-field success to academic incentives off it. A third posits that "UNC-CH should consider requiring 'year of readiness' for 'special admit' athletes in the freshman year and advocate for this reform nationally. During readiness year, students would be ineligible to compete in varsity sports but would retain four years of athletic eligibility." Those may be entirely unrealistic, but that doesn't make them bad ideas.

Indeed, they're interesting starting points exactly the kind of discussions the entire college athletics industry needs to undertake. Maybe it's nothing more but chastened lip service, but this quote from athletics director Bubba Cunningham is encouraging:
“The infusion of money into college athletics has been tremendous in the last 30 years, and I don’t think anyone understood what that was going to mean to the institution,” he said. “I personally think that we missed the boat years ago when we didn’t increase the number of opportunities for kids to participate in sport. We’ve poured more and more money into existing sports.”

UNC athletics turmoil has coincided with the most fraught collegiate sports landscape in history, a period of ballooning TV profits, conference realignment, and a class action lawsuit that threatens to crumble the amateur foundation upon which the NCAA has been built. Many of these discussions have focused on what is fair for college athletes, whether football and basketball players are being exploited by the schools they compete for. They are loud and as hominem and messy. What can be missed in the noise is that the value of a university scholarship is directly tied to how well schools are educating their players. Whether student-athletes are being taught, or merely shepherded through the motions en route to the next big away game, is core to the discussion in the first place. It is the premise on which the whole shebang rests.

You can't talk about costs and benefits of NCAA reform or NCAA collapse without knowing the realities on the ground. Maybe, just maybe, UNC can turn years of embarrassing investigations and inquiries and panels into an alignment of these discussions once and for all.

Call it a teachable moment.