This isn't that complicated. Getting through college is hard. Many athletes in top-ranked college football and basketball programs are unprepared for college. The result is often scandal.
The Institute of Higher Education at the University of Georgia got a bunch of college presidents, athletics directors, scholars and others together in August 2006 to talk about the conflicts between big-time sports programs and academics. A report on the conference is on the web site of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. It makes good reading in light of the problems at UNC and ..... everywhere else in the higher education universe.
Here is the key passage, on Page 5: "It is important to remember that the majority of student athletes are not underprepared for higher education. But low-achieving students from marginal, under-resourced high schools rarely matriculate at flagship universities unless they happen to be athletes. Many blue-chip athletes come from white-chip backgrounds, from low-income areas and inner city high schools that continue to struggle to prepare students for postsecondary education."
This is not the same as saying they are not smart. Anyone who follows college football knows that players have to master an astoundingly complex set of plays, from the quarterback to the receivers to the offensive linemen. But these are skills and techniques that these players have been working on since they popped up on middle school coaches' radar before they were teenagers.
Less attention has been spent, it is obvious, on reading, writing, math, study skills and time management. So they enter great universities such as UNC with a deep grasp of, say, how to pass block without getting called for holding or the subtleties of the veer offense, but not how to research and write a college-level term paper.
Lost in a lot of the discussion about big-time athletics is how difficult it is to get through college. (And I mean by this, taking real courses with rigorous requirements, as opposed to courses designed to keep athletes eligible.)
This may seem obvious, but I'm not sure it is. To be successful in college, you first need to get to class. In my experience, this is not only where you learn, but also where you learn what is important. Good instructors base their tests in large part on their lectures. Good instructors clarify difficult concepts through their lectures.
You need to do the reading as an important complement to the lectures.
You need to turn homework in on time. You need to prepare for quizzes and tests. You need to set aside enough time to write papers.
My experience was that for every credit hour, I needed to spend two or three hours of study time. So if I was taking a full load of 15 credit hours a semester, I was spending easily 40 hours a week reading, writing papers, preparing for tests.
Again, this is assuming real classes with demanding professors.
I don't know how a big-time athlete with weak study skills, weak reading, writing and math skills manages to do this. Particularly with a demanding practice schedule, visits to the weight room and travel to games and tournaments.
I know that major universities like UNC have academic support programs for the athletes, but they can only do so much, even when they break the rules and provide too much assistance on term papers. The academic advisors can't go in and take tests for the athletes. They can't go to class and take notes.
So this is the problem of trying to make excellent academics and top-tier football and basketball programs coexist in the same university. Many of the athletes have to hunt for classes they can pass, given their shaky academic skills and the time demands of their sport. Sometimes those classses are quasi-legit - because gut classes exist on most campuses. Sometimes those classes are not even quasi-legit, and we have seen what has happened at UNC.
I remain troubled by Julius Peppers' transcript, and wish he would talk about his academic experience at UNC, and what was going on with him. He has been - in college and in the NFL - an extremely talented player. As I said above, this is a very complex game, football, that requires considerable intelligence at the highest levels and an intense commitment and work ethic. It is not enough to be big and fast.
And yet, the transcript that popped up on the web showed that in the Fall semester in 1998, he got a D+ in Black Experience, a D in Elements of Drama, a C in Basic Writing, and an F in Algebra. You can read Andrew Carter's analysis of Peppers' transcript, and some of the interesting ways he remained eligible for several years until he left for the NFL. My question, if I had five minutes with Peppers, is whether he just blew off classes and homework, or if he was trying like the dickens but was completely unprepared by Southern Nash High School and really should have been at a community college filling in the gaps in his academic skills. And then transferring to a four-year college.
I grow weary of college officials, particularly those in athletics departments, who like to bandy about the term "student-athlete." Every post-game press conference, it seems, features a functionary from the athletics department public relations staff addressing the assembled reporters with the line: "Do you have any questions for our student-athlete?" Too often I hear that translated in my cynical mind to: "Do you have any questions for this kid from a really mediocre high school that we are desperately moving heaven and earth to keep eligible so he can keep doing the heroics you just saw on the football field or basketball court, including putting him in border-line and outright sketchy classes that we hope no one ever hears about."
I just don't have a lot of confidence in that hyphen - the one between student and athlete - being able to hold together the competing agendas of big-time athletics and big-time academics.
Something has to give. Usually academics.
Frankly, I am much more concerned that UNC remains a world-class university, with all that means for the citizens of North Carolina and our future. Having a championship-calibre football or basketball team cuts absolutely no ice with the global economy. And it is a shame that the administrations of UNC-Chapel Hill and the UNC System have had to spend an enormous amount of time trying to figure out what the athletic department has been up to, time that would have been better spent, oh, figuring out how to help get the state's economy out of the ditch.