The 'Swahili Scandal'
One of the reasons you never want an NCAA investigation – and certainly not probation – hitting your campus is because of the residue it leaves.
UNC is trying to move forward from the football mess that put it in the national headlines for the wrong reasons. We have a new athletic director and new football coach, so hopefully the oversight problems that existed will be corrected.
But the residue makes you part of a larger conversation and debate, which at this point in time is raging due to the numerous schools that have been in trouble before and since Carolina. The issue of paying athletes is back on the table. The entire existence of the NCAA is being questioned. Voices from near and far, from on the field and off the court, from people to whom athletics is no more than a passing thought, are being heard.
Joe Nocera, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, has decided to take on college athletics and all what’s wrong with it. So sweeping generalizations are being made in undocumented writings, some of which directly target UNC because Nocera has spent time in Chapel Hill interviewing athletes and lunching with faculty members.
How does Carolina respond to the more outrageous claims being made by Nocera via his sources? Does the university say “this too shall pass” and feel good about the changes made to correct what IS wrong? Or do some of the more inflammatory charges need to be answered?
Nocera says all freshman athletes are forced to take Swahili as their language requirement, flippantly dismissing it as remedial English when it is apparently difficult to learn. Nocera theorizes that it’s “because the athletic department tutors are strong in Swahili.”
Former defensive back Deunta Williams, who missed four games during the suspension-laden 2010 season, serves as a source for the so-called “Swahili scandal”.
Here are the facts, according to John Blanchard, senior associate athletics director for student-athletes services, and given to Nocera, whether or not he ever makes a correction in print.
Of the 21 freshman football players who are currently on scholarship, Blanchard said none of them are taking Swahili. Zero. Nada.
But what about in the Butch Davis era, dating back to when Williams was a freshman? Again, According to Blanchard:
Of the 25 freshman who entered school in 2006 . . .
· 12 took Portuguese
· 7 did take Swahili
· 1 took Spanish
· 5 chose not to take their language requirement as freshmen
UNC did not release the “Swahili stats” between 2006 and this academic year because there may have been a trend to support Nocera’s hyperbole. Sure, Swahili might have become more prevalent as Davis gained traction, leading to incidents like Marvin Austin taking a 400-level course in African Studies the summer before he enrolled as a freshman and the eventual loss of his chair of the African and Afro-American Studies department by Julius Nyang’oro.
Williams goes on to say, according to Nocera, “Athletes could only take the classes the athletic department wanted them to take. Coursework couldn’t interfere with practice, of course. It was always better that the classes not be too difficult — otherwise, there might be eligibility problems.”
Nocera further maintains that several faculty members told him that when an athlete enrolls in their class, “they get a letter from the athletic department asking them, in effect, to go easy on the player.”
Do all athletes have all of their courses dictated by the athletic department? Blanchard says that is not only inaccurate, it’s a bit ridiculous.
“All students, including athletes, have academic advisors on campus and seek their advice,” Blanchard said. “The academic advisors work with the students in selecting courses and the ultimate decision on which course to take is the student’s.”
And as for what the professors receive from the athletic department, it is called the “travel letter” and sent to every faculty member who has a varsity athlete in his or her class.
“It refers to student athletes who are in season and will be traveling with their respective teams,” Blanchard said. “It states they will be missing class and cites (UNC) faculty council policy that the athletes are responsible for their work but cannot be penalized for missing class while they are representing the university.”
The Schools Make The Rules
All this misses the point. Like most major universities, UNC employs dozens and dozens of faculty and staff members to try to make sure the more than 700 scholarship athletes make the NCAA-mandated progress toward graduation to stay eligible. Probably 95 percent of them do it the right way. The academic fraud that contributed to Carolina’s three-year probation came from a very few who did not want to do the work or simply weren’t capable without the wrong kind of help.
The bigger question that most people want answered is why are these football and basketball players are still called “student athletes” when they are responsible for the millions of dollars that fill the athletic department coffers every year? Is getting a free education for four or five years a fair trade? Should they not be paid something so the poorest of them can go out on a date and eat dinner away from the training table?
That is at the heart of the scorn aimed at the NCAA right now. But Nocera and others don’t get it. The NCAA administers events and investigates charges of rules violations, but those rules and penalties come from committees made up of employees from NCAA members. The schools make the rules!
The NCAA is an administrative organization responsible for revenue streams that flow to the conference and their member schools. Many athletic departments have become self-sustaining corporations of sort that still enjoy the same tax-exempt status as their universities.
Paying athletes would make them employees of the schools and thus eligible for workman’s compensation if “injured on the job.” The tax-exemptions would be lost by at least the athletic departments if not the entire college or university.
So it’s not the NCAA that could affect change. It is the schools that would have to quit the multi-million-dollar facilities arms race, stop paying coaches in non-revenue-producing sports high six- and seven-figure salaries, and create a ceiling for what the big-sport coaches make that is now eclipsing $5 million a year for some.
The money that is required to run the major-college athletic departments of today leads to the pressure to pay the coaches and build plush facilities, trying to win games by recruiting the best players and some who don’t belong in college. Yes, a little more integrity is needed.
But it won’t stop with one athletic director or university president committing professional suicide by standing up and leaving the room. They all have to do it together, and that’s not going to happen because there is just too much money. Being made and to lose.