Not to spoil March Madness for anyone — who doesn’t enjoy sitting back on three consecutive weekends watching a never-ending stream of timeouts and fouls? — but there’s the small matter that our nation’s premier student-athletes cannot even read.
(If you are currently enrolled at the University of North Carolina and had trouble understanding the previous paragraph, don’t worry — on the bright side, you likely have a four-year scholarship and start on the football or men’s basketball team!)
For those of you who missed it, earlier this year learning specialist Mary Willingham revealed that research of 183 football and basketball players at UNC from 2004 to 2012 showed 60 percent reading at fourth- to eighth-grade levels and 10 percent below a third-grade level.
The school’s response: “We do not believe that claim.”
My response: I’ll take Willingham’s word over UNC every day and twice on game day.
You may recall the 2010 NCAA investigation uncovering academic fraud at North Carolina in regard to football players — lectures and classes that didn’t meet, unauthorized grade changes and the like.
Couch Slouch comes today not to bury North Carolina but rather to bemoan that the Chapel Hill standard is no different at dozens of U.S. universities. America no longer leads the world in anything other than gun deaths, and you need look no further than our ceaseless pursuit of sporting success to see why. The outsize importance of big-time sports on college campuses reflects a skewed value system that, if not leading us to ruins, is at a minimum leading us to mediocrity.
(Yes, this is still a humor column. I’ll relate a Rodney Dangerfield joke a little later.)
To paraphrase Hyman Roth, this is the life we have chosen.
The games should delight us, not define us. Yet in America, we get the college athletic scandals we cultivate; we cultivate them because we choose to celebrate athletic accomplishment over academic achievement. From “Friday Night Tykes” to “Monday Night Football,” we obsess on sports. We neglect more pressing community needs to prop up sporting interests. We treat 15-year-old quarterbacks like Roman gods and relegate 15-year-old math wizards to reference rooms.
(By the way, what type of legitimate student-athlete system would not embrace my Stepson of Destiny Isaiah Eisendorf? He’s perhaps the best player on one of the better public-school basketball teams in Maryland — 12.6 points and 10.9 rebounds a game, with a weighted GPA of 3.77 — and he hasn’t gotten a whiff of interest from Division I or II.)
(Isaiah’s extremely coachable — other than you’d need a court order to get him to shovel snow — yet no coach even wants him to be the last player on the bench. If that’s the reality of it, there’s something rotten in Denmark or at least in the gold-plated ivory towers above our fruited plain.)
In these matters, I always lean on the wisdom of former University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins, who once said, “The three major administrative problems on a campus are sex for the students, athletics for the alumni and parking for the faculty.”
Or as music teacher Mr. Holland, in the 1995 film “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” told his football coach buddy Bill after music, arts and drama programs were cut at fictional Kennedy High in Oregon: “I don’t think you have anything to worry about. The day they cut the football budget in this state, well, now, that will be the end of Western civilization as we know it.”
If the culture values Nick Saban more than, say, Jonas Salk or Itzhak Perlman, then the culture is in a dark and unimaginable place.
So it should not surprise us that, time and again, our morally bankrupt institutions of higher learning opt to game the system — or recruit student-athletes who cannot read — in order to win more contests and make more money. Hey, a great engineering program is nice, but a top 25 football program is nicer. Plus “SportsCenter” never mentions Fulbright scholars, only Heisman candidates.
The other day, I was on a podcast making these precise points, and frankly, the hosts treated me as if I were out of my mind and, well, cut me short.
Which reminds me — I promised you all a Rodney Dangerfield joke:
“My psychiatrist told me I was crazy, and I said I wanted a second opinion. He said, okay, you’re ugly, too.”
Q. Where were you when Mercer beat Duke the other day? (John Smiley; Roanoke)
A. I was actually on Fantasy Island drinking a Mai Tai with Mr. Roarke — was shocked he could deliver on my request so quickly.
Q. Have you ever had an existential crisis? (Pete Jacobs; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
A. I questioned myself — as much as I questioned Time Warner Cable — when my service went out on June 10, 2007, midway through the series finale of “The Sopranos.”
Q. Doesn’t CBS’s NCAA tournament coverage interfere with the commercials? (Tom Millet; Silver Spring)
A. Pay the man, Shirley.
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