With NCAA ruling in UNC case, ‘student athlete’ is officially dead

The Observer editorial board

University of North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams and women’s coach Sylvia Hatchell leave for a break during an NCAA hearing in August.
University of North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams and women’s coach Sylvia Hatchell leave for a break during an NCAA hearing in August. AP

The farce of the so-called “student-athlete” is officially dead.

With its feeble response Friday to years of bogus classes at the University of North Carolina, the NCAA forever put to rest the notion it has long tried to push with a straight face: That athletes in big-time sports are “students first” working toward college degrees.

The NCAA, in its final report years in the making, imposed no serious penalties on UNC despite the school operating and condoning one of the most egregious academic/athletic scandals in history.

The primary defense offered by the so-called “Public Ivy” was so self-defeating that it worked: We didn’t offer bogus classes to athletes; we offered them to everyone! That’s a technicality that got the NCAA off the school’s back despite being only partly true. But it is undeniably a sad, shameful admission for the nation’s first – and, in some minds, finest – public university.

So while the school dodged official sanctions like a postseason ban, vacating of tainted championships and probation, it could not avoid the body-blow to its reputation.

Also marred – further marred, we should say – is the reputation of the NCAA, which showed once and for all that it is incapable of fulfilling its mission. Its cowering in this case sends a message to schools nationwide: Do what you want. If you say it’s OK, it’s OK with us.

Because if ever there was a case that deserved punishment, it was this: Two decades of fake classes that didn’t meet, allowed papers largely written by someone else and handed out As and Bs to help athletes maintain their eligibility.

The university argued that the classes were not special benefits for athletes because non-athletes took the classes as well. The truth, according to the UNC-commissioned Wainstein report, is that about half the students in the bogus classes were athletes even though they make up four percent of the student body.

Given this precedent, what’s to stop a university from paying its athletes, as long as it also pays its marching band?

Beyond the scope, seriousness and longevity of UNC’s transgressions, another black eye for the school came from its response. Instead of being horrified and holding itself accountable when the facts surfaced years ago, the university’s leadership dodged, denied, delayed and ducked. That allowed the school to avoid sanctions in the end, but it should be an utter embarrassment to alumni and all North Carolinians.

At the core of this whole episode is that the NCAA has a fundamental conflict within its mission. It tries to maintain the integrity of university athletics but, like the NFL, the institution administering the rules and any punishment is beholden to the very people it is punishing.

Thousands of athletes in non-revenue sports indeed compete on the field as just one part of their university education. But in major revenue sports, that notion is a charade. With these stars bringing in billions of dollars for their schools, the idea of a student-athlete has long been fiction, and the NCAA has now confirmed that.

Perhaps there’s not much that can be done about it. Just know, as a fan, those kids you root for running up and down the gridiron or hardwood are not “students first.” They are laborers for a cabal that just revealed how utterly corrupt it is.