Lost amid the roar of fall crowds at college football games and attention to the FBI’s investigation into college athletics is a fundamental issue facing universities: Where is the line between an easy course and a wholly illegitimate one for student athletes?
This question is at the heart of UNC’s battle with the NCAA over the academic “scandal” that occurred there over a 20-year period and whether UNC should be punished by the NCAA. Likewise, this question is at the heart of a proposed class action lawsuit brought against UNC by two former athletes over the courses provided to them and a proposed group of former athletes during this period. That case is pending in Superior Court and for purposes of full disclosure, I’m one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs.
It’s a basic question involving the relationship between the universities and the young athletes whose time and talent are the driving forces in the multi-billion dollar industry of college athletics. Prospective students sign a grant-in-aid or athletic scholarship to play a particular sport for a university. In return the university promises to pay for the athletes’ tuition costs to take classes at that university. So what legal obligation does the university have in regard to the classes provided?
UNC’s defense in regard to the NCAA charges and its defense in regard to the lawsuit is simply that UNC – and all other universities – have no contractual obligation nor do they guarantee any quality of classes to those athletes. In other words, if the classes were easy, I mean really easy, well, that’s the university’s business – not the NCAA’s business. And in regard to the pending litigation, there’s no such thing as a viable claim for “educational malpractice” based on “easy” courses. On the law, UNC is right about this. The difficulty or quality of courses is a university concern and the NCAA has no authority to punish UNC or any other school simply because the courses offered and taken by an athlete were lousy courses. And courts have uniformly ruled that the judicial system has no business parsing the quality of courses even if the evidence shows that those courses were pure fluff.
The tough question lingering out there in the UNC situation is whether the hundreds of courses at issue were not just easy – but whether they were legitimate college level courses that would merit accreditation by the agency tasked with certifying and accrediting a school and its academic offerings? UNC has bet the ranch on arguing that this is all about “easy” courses. But do courses with no faculty involvement; no class attendance; no compliance with independent study requirements; high grades awarded by a staffer and in some cases forged grade rolls add up to legitimate courses as opposed to easy courses?
Whatever the outcome with the NCAA and the pending litigation, UNC and all universities have both a moral and legal obligation to “student-athletes” to offer them legitimate college level courses in exchange for their efforts making money for the universities’ athletic programs. The fact that schools apparently don’t guarantee that is the real scandal of our time.
Orr is a former N.C. Supreme Court justice. Email: greenponds.