The return of March Madness has office pools humming. For decades, from the epic Magic and Bird final of 1979 to the era of the one-and-done's, the nation's appetite for college basketball has continued to grow. Buzzer beaters and Cinderellas and shining moments have created an "addictive" spectacle. Even president Obama eagerly fills out his brackets.
Among the most serious costs of this national "addiction" is the hypocrisy it cultivates among the leaders of our public universities. Gate receipts, NCAA tournament bonuses, and the goodwill and fundraising advantages that allegedly accrue to schools with a successful basketball "brand" have led the stewards of universities to ignore or tacitly accept practices that directly conflict with the core missions of their institutions: to pursue truth and to educate tomorrow's leaders.
Take one of the top seeds in this year's tournament, the North Carolina Tar Heels. We have learned much about the athletic-academic scandal uncovered at UNC between 2010 and 2015. We know that the fraud involved hundreds of classes and thousands of students. Faculty and administrators in many offices were complicit in the scam. They helped athletes enroll in notoriously soft courses across multiple departments. We know that many athletes stayed eligible for competition thanks to generous grades handed out in sham classes scheduled specifically for them. But a key detail about UNC's experience with academic fraud has gone largely unnoticed -- thanks to the university's assiduous PR management and a strangely desultory NCAA investigation. The system of academic fraud cooked up around 1990 was initially intended to benefit one team in particular: the men's basketball team.
The first UNC course offered as a favor to the basketball team, scheduled in 1988, was an independent study for two painfully weak students who hovered at or below the eligibility line. They received helpful B's, and out of that little experiment the UNC course scam was born. In fall 1992 one star of the basketball team ostensibly pursued an independent study with a faculty member who was on sabbatical at the time. (I know this because I shared a fellowship leave with that faculty member.) This had to have been one of the "shadow" courses offered by the administrative assistant who played such a central role in the fraud, a generous woman whose closest friend was the basketball team's academic counselor. She assigned A or B grades in the shadow courses, which required no attendance and little work. One player on the 1993 team took seven suspect courses with her help; four starters on that team majored in the department where she worked. UNC's 1993 championship run seems to have been aided and abetted by fraud.
By 2005, when UNC won its next national championship, the "paper class" system (so called because students had to turn in only one paper of uncertain provenance to collect their A's) was hitting on all cylinders. Players on the men's basketball team took over one hundred of the fake courses, with one racking up eighteen. Star forward Rashad McCants has admitted that he rarely attended a single class in the spring of 2005 -- even though he landed on the Dean's list for the high grades he was awarded. Players on the 2009 national championship team received similar favors.
UNC's leaders first worked hard not to learn that men's basketball had been the driver of the scandal and then refused to acknowledge that reality when the evidence for it was finally exposed. In a comical maneuver, they redacted the word "basketball" from emails they were forced to release to the public. When Rashad McCants spoke the truth about his academic experiences, the athletic department lined up former teammates to accuse him of fabricating tales. (McCants, tellingly, is the only player on the team willing to show the world his academic transcript, where the truth resides.) When the Kenneth Wainstein report of 2014 at last proved that the fraud scheme had been designed to keep athletes eligible, and that the worst abuses occurred during the basketball championship year of 2005, the university reacted by doubling down and handing coach Roy Williams a contract extension. Meanwhile, administrative leaders continue to urge the university community to "move forward" as the dithering NCAA enables UNC's pursuit of another national title.
The UNC case is of course only one symptom of a national disease. At Syracuse, officials pressured a professor to change a grade for the star center. At Florida State, players were handed answers to quizzes. At Michigan, administrators appeared to cover for an independent studies scam led by a faculty member with courtside seats. At UCLA, an advisor for the basketball team resigned in disgust when he claimed he saw a pattern of illicit grade changing. At Louisville, prostitutes and strippers were reportedly used to lure in talented high school players. Rather than call out this corruption and reassert the primacy of academic values, university presidents duck responsibility and cravenly feed the nation's basketball "addiction". Winning on the hard court, they have decided, is more important than integrity. We should all ponder the hypocrisy such leaders are modeling for today's university students -- the leaders of tomorrow -- as we await the next tip-off.
Jay M. Smith is a professor of history at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is the co-author, with Mary Willingham, of Cheated: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-Time College Sports.