Thorp: Chancellors wrong choice to lead athletics

Apr. 19, 2013 @ 09:13 PM

There must be an openly adversarial relationship between athletics and academics at UNC Chapel Hill in order to change the culture that caused grief for both its football program and chancellor, UNC history professor Jay Smith said on Friday.

He was speaking to the panel that’s been tasked with writing a new chapter for a campus trying to turn the page on what’s been, frankly, a mess.

“I don’t want to point to particular sins of the past at UNC, but I’m convinced that faculty complacency contributed to the institutional breakdown from which we’re still trying to recover,” Smith said. “The we’re-all-in-this-together approach … of academics and athletics didn’t work for us.”

Those sins about which Smith spoke pertain to football players at UNC over the years benefiting improperly, both academically and financially. The problems cost Butch Davis his job as head football coach of the Tar Heels, and UNC chancellor Holden Thorp is on his way out as a result.

It was Thorp, though, who decided that it was a good idea to assemble Smith and others in the know in the same room to talk about the role of athletics at UNC. That group, gathered in a lecture space inside UNC’s Murray Hall, put their views on the table during the first meeting of a five-person panel chaired by Association of American Universities president Hunter Rawlings.

“Today, we’re really here to listen,” Rawlings said. “We’re not here to investigate anything. All that’s been done. We want to make some positive recommendations going forward.”

Those new ideas must be bold, not mere tweaks, Rawlings insisted.

Smith offered this: “The first, easy step toward a more honest and transparent relationship between academics and athletics is to strike ‘student-athlete’ from the lexicon.

“The myth of the student-athlete is, I’m sorry to say, a bad one.”

Smith said academics comes secondary for students who play sports at UNC, particularly those who suit up for the football and basketball teams, and it’s why 75 percent of those young people choose the same courses of study that result in their transcripts looking awfully similar, “loaded down with the same, notoriously easy courses” taught by instructors with soft spots for ball players.

“That’s why athletes can miss my class when they’re traveling, but they can’t take my class if it conflicts with their practice schedules,” said Smith, a historian of 18th Century France. “These guys are not students first.”

ESPN broadcaster Jay Bilas, an attorney who played basketball at Duke, told the panel that the notion of college athletics being a vital part of the educational process is laughable.

“College coaches are not looked upon as educators. They’re not tenured,” Bilas said.

And it’s not like the relatively small number of college athletes across the country get course credit for playing ball, Bilas said.

“If college sports is so vital to the educational process, why don’t we have more teams?” Bilas asked. “Why aren’t more people involved in it if it has such great educational value?”  

The NCAA claims that amateurism is at its core, Bilas said.

“I don’t see it as being a bedrock principle,” Bilas said. “I see it as being a sham.

“We have professional athletes that play college sports right now, and the world spins comfortably on its axis just fine. We have professional baseball players that make hundreds of thousands of dollars – in some cases, millions of dollars – that play college football and college basketball, and nobody says a word. … It works just fine. Money is not the issue with regard to athletes, because we’ve got professional athletes that are playing and we’re not seeing major problems.”

The problem is the NCAA’s financial restrictions on college athletes, Bilas said, arguing that scholarships to play sports amount to mere expenses for the multi-billion dollar business that is college athletics. 

“Why are we restricting this one class of people from receiving more than expenses?” Bilas offered. “It has created an underground economy. It has created scandals that really don’t need to be scandals.”

The NCAA argues that there’s not enough money to pay college athletes, but saying that suggests that ball players would, in fact, get paid if the money were there, Bilas said. However, the NCAA arguing that point essentially would mean that the organization actually has no real commitment to amateurism, he said.

By the way, “there’s more than enough to compensate the players,” Bilas said. 

Bilas has a recently published New York Times best seller titled “Toughness,” and he said that if he’d written it while he was playing ball for Duke, then he’d have been in violation of NCAA rules. Yet, say, an English major in school on an academic scholarship could have penned it and made money without such hassle, Bilas said. 

“College sports is professional,” Bilas said. “The only thing amateur about it right now is the structure and the leadership, and the only thing amateur about it is the players don’t get anything.”

To make his point, Bilas said Bowl Championship Series football games are just like the fiscally lucrative Super Bowl except for the fact that the college players don’t get a piece of the financial action.

“The NCAA has been in scandal mode and in crisis mode since 1906 when it was founded,” Bilas said. “It was founded in scandal, it has continued in scandal and it will continue in scandal unless there’s change in the way the rules are structured and the way the governance is structured.”

Thorp said that the NCAA got it wrong by putting college presidents and chancellors in charge of their athletics programs. Most college presidents and chancellors enter those leadership positions with no experience in big-time sports, so what they actually become are fans trying to decide what the right decisions are for their teams, Thorp said.   

“After five years and all that I’ve been through, I know enough to run college sports now,” said Thorp, who has accepted a job as the next provost at Washington University in St. Louis. “But I think we can all agree that it wasn’t a smooth road to enlightenment.”

The most important job for incoming UNC Chancellor Carol Folt will be minding the school’s athletics program, Thorp said. That’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it is, he said. Thorp said it’s a lesson he didn’t learn until 2010, when the scandal knocked the wind out of UNC.

UNC athletics director Bubba Cunningham, who arrived after the mess, said he’d welcome a transfer of power that would put Tar Heels sports under his control.

“We’re closest to it. We work on it every day. That’s our profession,” Cunningham said. “If we can get some of those decisions out of the president’s office, it should reduce, hopefully, the turnover in presidents and chancellors at some off the greatest universities in the country.”

Thorp said, “I’m not saying there aren’t things I could have done differently that could have made it better.” 

But it’s too simple to suggest that college presidents and chancellors should have all of the answers necessary to mend that disconnect between athletics and academics, nor is it fair, Thorp said.

“We don’t have a commission that says, ‘Well, don’t trust the dean of medicine to run the hospital,’ but the Knight Commission did say don’t trust the A.D. to run the athletics department,” Thorp said.

Richard Southall, an associate professor of sport administration at UNC, and Joy Renner, the committee chairwoman for the UNC Faculty Athletics Committee, also addressed the panel.

No timetable has been set for the panel to make its recommendations to UNC, Rawlings said.

Thorp, who had been speaking with a certain freedom and frankness during the public session, was more reserved afterward when asked if he thought the Rawlings panel would produce anything meaningful.

“Thankfully, I wasn’t given the assignment of figuring that out,” Thorp said.

“I’m pretty optimistic that we will make some bold recommendations,” Rawlings said. “Whether they can be implemented is up to (UNC) Chapel Hill. How well they’ll be received across the country, we’ll have to see.”

While the panel is focused on fixing what’s broken at UNC, Rawlings said, schools similar to UNC in size and scope – such as Penn State and Rutgers, which have had their own issues – likely would benefit from the conclusions.

Thorp said this much is certain right now: “Big-time college athletics are here to stay.”

That’s a good thing, too, because it gets alumni back on college campuses and helps with fundraising, Thorp said. 

“The schools that do not have big-time sports struggle mightily with this,” Thorp said.

Last year, football and basketball accounted for a million visits to UNC and roughly $100 million in sales from UNC-licensed merchandise, Thorp said.

“I once traveled on three planes and a boat to a remote island in the Galapagos Islands and hiked 30 minutes to the top of a volcano, and there was one person there and he had on a Carolina hat,” Thorp said.

That guy on the volcano was from Maine.

“If we want the benefits that I just described, we need to win,” Thorp said.

Rawlings and the rest of the panel will spend the coming months trying to figure out how to win the right way.