The systemic rot in college athletics starts up high, not down low. Academic fraud at Syracuse was blatant and abetted by top officials. At least four Tennessee football players on last season’s roster have been accused of sexual assault, yet the head of the university opposes discipline that is too “legalistic.”
There is a common theme to the scandal stories plaguing college athletics this week: the enabling, if not outright collusion, by some of the supposedly highest-minded people on campus, those pipe-tamping, mortarboard-wearing guardians of integrity called chancellors and presidents.
If schools such as Syracuse and Tennessee are having trouble scraping off the mud, it’s not just because they’ve been dirtied by a few menials. The NCAA’s 94-page report on Syracuse convincingly details the extent of academic deception, though Jim Boeheim would have you think it was purely the fault of a lone “rogue” employee. The trouble with that narrative is the red-handed example of Fab Melo in 2012.
Syracuse was on an undefeated 20-0 run in 2012 when Melo failed to meet his academic progress requirements and was about to be declared ineligible for the second semester. First, Syracuse tried to keep him on the court by applying to the NCAA for a waiver, claiming he fell behind because of medical and personal problems. Denied. What happened next is a blueprint of how perfectly nice universities with wonderful faculty and illustrious alumni turn themselves into trash bins.
No fewer than eight Syracuse officials — eight — met on the matter of Melo’s eligibility: a deputy provost, a faculty rep, the athletic director, two deputy athletic directors, the NCAA compliance director, the director of athlete support services, and the director of basketball operations.
The upshot of the meeting was that Melo was advised to apply for a grade change — in a course he had taken more than a year earlier. An obliging professor agreed to let him submit a paper to improve on the C-minus he had received. He was supposed to turn in a four-page essay with citations from scholarly journals; what he submitted was an enhanced version of his NCAA waiver request. Later, a metadata analysis of it showed Melo was not the author of it. A basketball office receptionist wrote most of it. Melo got a B-minus.
Four university officials — four — rushed over to the registrar’s office to submit the paperwork on the grade change in order to get him eligible in time for a big game tip-off. When it didn’t immediately go through, the director of compliance sent a pressuring e-mail, warning that the vice chancellor and the provost of the university would be “very disappointed” if Melo’s grade change wasn’t approved. Presto. He was eligible.
On the same day Syracuse was hit by NCAA probation, another enlightening document was revealed down in Tennessee, but didn’t get as much publicity. The Nashville Tennesseean newspaper uncovered a bombshell memo from the school’s former head of Student Judicial Affairs written in 2013, complaining that Chancellor Jimmy Cheek and Athletic Director Dave Hart pressured him improperly on matters of discipline for athletes, to the point of putting the school’s integrity, as well as other students, “in peril.”
Tim Rogers, a 38-year veteran administrator, listed among his concerns: the “inordinate number of disciplinary cases involving athletes” and the “inordinate” number of sexual assault reports at a dorm called Vol Hall populated by many athletes. He wrote that he and his staff were subject to “constant criticism of disciplinary penalties assigned to athletes.”
Rogers also took exception to efforts by the athletic department to have some varsity athletes defined as having learning “disabilities” so they could be exempted from tougher courses.
“It is patently apparent that Athletics, enabled by way of the Chancellor’s directives and interference . . . wields undue influence and diminishes or eliminates independence of thought and action necessary for unbiased review within individual departments . . . ” he wrote.
Both Cheek and Hart strongly deny inappropriate interference, though Cheek acknowledged to the Tennesseean that he and Hart were occasionally critical of Rogers for a tendency to be too “legalistic” and punitive in his punishments.
The upshot of all of this? Rogers resigned in May 2013, citing an “intolerable situation” and lack of institutional support. In 2014 there were five sexual assault allegations against members of the football team, according to the Tennessean. Last month two were indicted for aggravated rape of an undergraduate. Those two players were ordered to stand trial Monday, and both pleaded not guilty.
There is no reason to think Syracuse and Tennessee are outliers, any different from North Carolina, Florida State, Vanderbilt or any number of other schools that have struggled with disciplinary oversight and athletic-academic balance. The takeaway from these cases is that college athletics requires a radical restructuring.
Boeheim says he’s “not going anywhere.” The question is why that’s his decision, and not school President Kent Syverud’s. The simple answer is that no one has the authority to criticize Boeheim, much less fire him.
Presumably Syverud, who has been on the job for only a year, is not an unethical man, nor Cheek an amoral one. Both have respected records. Syverud is a legal scholar, and Cheek an award-winner for teaching excellence in agriculture who has worked hard to lift Tennessee into rankings of the top 50 research universities. (Full disclosure: I have met Cheek and like him and have occasionally donated money to Tennessee women’s athletics.) But no lone tweedy president or chancellor has the clout to stand up to coaches and athletic directors backed by power bases of rich fanatical donors.
So what’s the answer? A think tank of college faculty named The Drake Group, founded by a New Haven professor named Allen Sack back in 2000, long has advocated dissolving athletic departments all together. It’s the right idea — and the only cleansing option left. Put college sports (and their coaches) under the collective supervision of faculty senates, where they can at least be somewhat checked and subject to better oversight.
This isn’t an NCAA issue. It’s a campus authority issue. Athletic departments create problems in the authority chain that chemistry departments don’t. They have absolutely no educational role or function other than to exploit revenue-producing athletes and self-enrich athletic directors and their deputies, who couldn’t teach a course in drawing a farm to third-graders. They are the needless apparatus by which student-athletes are robbed twice: first when they’re deprived of their fair cut of revenue for their labor and again when they’re cheated out of the value of their scholarships, funneled into phony lightweight curriculums and grade-inflation scams. It takes a mighty effort for a revenue-sport college athlete to emerge without his education compromised.
Assimilating college sports into the university would prevent them from being run as autonomies or fiefdoms. And you don’t need an NCAA bylaw or an act of Congress to do it — just an active, empowered faculty and some administrators with backbone.
“If athletes get ‘A’s’ for doing little or no work, that is not an NCAA problem,” Sack once said. “It’s our problem.”
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