Andy Thomason: Discredited: The UNC Scandal and College Athletics’ Amateur Ideal

[University of Michigan Press; August 27]

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is not designed to be understood. Its contradictions are the point, as the new book, Discredited: The UNC Scandal and College Athletics’ Amateur Ideal explores, using UNC-Chapel Hill’s scandal-plagued athletics department as its source.

Who benefits from such contradictions, or who loses out, is more clear—but it’s a reality the book is loath to satisfactorily probe.

Programs like Carolina’s generate tens of millions in revenue annually through sports—dollars which are not passed on to those who fuel the enterprise, but to the NCAA, a nonprofit organization, and its member institutions. They, in turn, burn through this money on facilities, branding, and staff salaries: In 2019, 40 of the 50 states’ highest-paid public employees were college football head coaches.

Conversely, players are not paid employees but are instead “student-athletes,” a 70-year-old term invented to evade workers’ compensation claims when players got hurt or killed during competition.

By this summer, this tension was too much; the courts awarded players a trickle of profits through agreements by which they can profit from endorsements bearing their names, images, and likenesses (NIL), and the NCAA can still make money. But without further reform, the NCAA will remain what it has always been: an unwieldy, money-making appendage sutured to the torso of higher education at best, and, at worst, a millstone around the necks of top colleges, inhibiting their academic goals.

Andy Thomason, the author of Discredited and an editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, a D.C.-based publication that caters to those working in academia, understands this paradox. He gives a brisk but detailed look at an ecosystem in which collegiate athletic ambitions came into direct conflict with academic standards, and then, in the 2000s, clearly took precedence.

Until this July, the primary compensation NCAA athletes could receive was through a scholarship, a Nike-swoosh emblazoned pair of bootstraps upon which players could pull if they found time to hit the library between double sessions and film study. Permitted by the NCAA beginning in 1957, athletic scholarships opened the door to scandal across the country by incorporating a pay-for-play model, Thomason writes.

UNC, under the principled guidance of head basketball coach Dean Smith, distinguished itself as the rare school that could do both. A top-tier athletic university that sacrificed nothing in the way of academics, the campus fostered a Tobacco Road exceptionalism known as “The Carolina Way.”

The scandal would crack this facade as UNC administrators hustled to keep up with stipulations guiding athletes’ academic eligibility. It started small, with a student who needed credits to graduate, and an African and Afro-American Studies department, formed in 1997, willing to help. The department created a new course, supervised by the department chair, in which the sole requirement was the completion of a single paper.

From there, it metastasized. By the time a disgruntled learning specialist blew the whistle in 2010, more than 3,000 students had taken these “paper classes.” The department secretary, not its chair, was often grading the papers, and rather leniently. And the athletics department, eager to keep unprepared students eligible for sports, had taken to the ruse through strategic advising and course creation, with athletes comprising a disproportionate 47 percent of those enrolled in such courses.

Thomason neatly synthesizes the construction of the paper classes, the banal slippery slope administrators traveled down, and the fallout of the eventual discovery. Disgust turns to shock as the university, dispelling the NCAA’s claims of athlete preferential treatment, argues that, since all students had access to these paper classes, no favoritism was on display. Shock turns to laughter when the NCAA accepts the argument.

Discredited does well to identify the pressures facing the academic advisors who made the system hum, but not all of the dots get connected. Two of the biggest figures in the scandal—former department chair Julius Nyang’oro and former department secretary Debbie Crowder—declined interviews with Thomason. Their absence is unsurprising, but one benefit of waiting until 2021 to write the book should be, in theory, to tell the whole story.

More troubling is the prioritization of the humanity of the academic staff over that of the athletes, who, displaced by innumerable white-savior characters, are largely rendered invisible and voiceless. Thomason makes this intention clear from the first chapter, writing that while the cost of amateurism to athletes is well-trod ground, “comparatively little has been written of late about the costs to the institutions of higher learning.”

As it stands, the agency of the athletes in Discredited is fluid and never flattering: they “seized the opportunity” to take these courses, but their successes are chalked up, in an infantilizing pattern that one would hope had ended with The Blind Side, to the aid of their advisors. By my count, two former athletes—both women’s basketball players—are interviewed and quoted in the text, mostly to provide character witness statements like “she really was the mom I wish I had” about academic support staff.

It’s telling that the book considers the biggest casualties of the scandal to be the fired advisors, rather than the athletes denied proper fiduciary compensation and whose insufficient redress—the promise of an education—was subsequently sacrificed.

Thomason is rightly pessimistic about the long-term success of an imperfect union between an academic mission and the entertainment of big-time athletics. But it can work for both parties—the athletics lending a marketing, branding, and fundraising outlet for the school and the school legitimating the athletic enterprise and subsidizing its labor costs—as long as no one stops to consider the needs of the athletes or the students.

In the conclusion, Thomason writes “there are no villains in this story, only well-intentioned people who suffered sobering fates,” a statement that requires an epochal suspension of disbelief. These words suggest a skeptical eye might be better trained on the administrators and systems Thomason centers throughout the book.

After all, if you’re writing about a college sports and higher education scandal in 2021 and you can’t find a bad guy, then maybe you just need to look a bit harder. 

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