Hudson University

I have mentioned before that I have something of a soft-spot for (often) ridiculous television dramas. Some I legitimately like, others feed bad habits without demanding anything of me in return, including not requiring money. The latest addition to my routine has been Blindspot, an FBI, spy mystery that revolves around deciphering tattoos on Jane Doe’s body and, by extension, figuring out who she is and why she came to the attention of the FBI. Usually I wish they would do more with this sort of character story rather than using the same hook for a new semi-procedural of discovering and then resolving corruption throughout the city. This week’s episode traipsed into a cliche that sits on my list of pet-peeves: the college campus.

One tattoo is revealed to contain significant digits for Hudson University’s highly lucrative football program national championships and seem to point to NCAA scholarship violations, so the agents wander to campus to speak to a coach who denies any knowledge and, on their way out, stumble across a school shooting. It turns out that the shooting is perpetrated by former (and current?) players who have rigged many several doors in a (student center?) building next to the football field with explosives and are now marching through the building with assault rifles in order to kill the coach because he molested them as children; the scholarship violations were hush-money to keep the scandal under wraps. The story is a clumsy retelling of the Jerry Sandusky saga at Penn State garnished with the school-shooting epidemic.

There is a lot that could be unpacked about the inconsistencies of the story. The shooters insist they are only after the coach, but nevertheless rigged doors in a student building with explosives. The coach evidently goes into the building a lot, but this sort of hand-wavy treatment of the college campus is frustrating. The student center of this fictional school contains a) cafeterias, b) classrooms, c) an auditorium, d) labs, and the whole thing is set particularly close to athletics facilities. At a small school this could certainly happen, but at a school large enough to have a nationally-competitive football program it is highly improbable. Instead of offering any sort of specificity, the writers offer vague snapshots of “college” and expect the viewer to be able to fill in the gaps. This is not particular to Blindspot, and Hudson University is a common setting for a large number of television shows when they need a stock-college.

At some level, though, this is a function of the medium. College is still a fairly ubiquitous experience for most people in America and that school is a convenient setting for a story rather than the point of the show, so vague snapshots suffice. Nevertheless, the preponderance of these snapshots help perpetuate stereotypes about the academy. (Perhaps office shows perpetuate stereotypes about offices, etc, but these shows seem to dally with the academy in a way similar only to entertainment industries.)

I don’t like how colleges are portrayed on TV, but have only one, tangentially related suggestion. Even if none of these other stereotypes are resolved, can we at least move them to a more believable location? The last time a New York school with a football program won a national championship was Army, in 1946. The show wants to be set in New York for a variety of reasons, but also to tap into the national obsession with football–two things that hardly go together.

The Academic Scandal at UNC

Tegularius beheld the landscape and, lo,
corruption of college athletics sat,
a plague upon the land.

Once pristine halls of learning,
overflowing with the bounty
of peerless intellect and civic virtue,
now wept from open sores,
tears of brawn.

Former monks of the mind,
they of keen vision, untroubled
by brutish pangs of flesh,
now brought low by the base distractions
of the masses.

The NCAA stalks their halls.

As many people have probably heard, there has been a scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill where, over the course of two decades thousands of students, about half of whom were athletes, took “paper classes” or “independent studies” and received disproportionately high grades. What happened was wrong and a failure on the level of pedagogy, administration, and ethics and there is going to be hell to pay on account of it. But there is altogether too much self-righteous finger-wagging going on right now at what is being construed as “the problems of big-money college athletics.” There are problems with college athletics, and there are problems with what happened at UNC, but the two do not completely overlap.

Some basics, taken from the executive summary of the report.

  1. An administrative assistant in the African American studies program, now retired, with the best wishes of the department chair developed the idea of “paper courses.”
  2. The students enrolled in these courses did not have to attend lectures or meet with a professor, but just turned in a term paper.
  3. The assistant “graded” the papers herself, usually reading only the introduction and conclusion, allowing for a significant amount of fluff or plagiarism. She then assigned disproportionately high grades.
  4. The grades artificially buoyed the GPA of many students, which allowed many athletes to stay academically eligible.
  5. thousands of students benefitted from the program, 48% of whom were athletes and half of those athletes were football or basketball players.

The report, or at least the summary is well worth reading. The news coverage has focused on how members of the athletics staff directed struggling student-athletes to the program to keep them eligible and how the students received excellent grades for shoddy or plagiarized work and one that (sort of) finds it troubling that the UNC officials are “eager” to pass the problem off as an sports one rather than an academic one.

My issue with this characterization is that the courses were open to all students. Athletes made up a huge percentage of the enrollment compared to their percentage of the student body, but the courses were not primarily intended to keep student-athletes eligible. In fact, the courses were designed to help types of at-risk and struggling students: sexual assault victims, people with mental illness, underprepared student-athletes, and students from challenging backgrounds. Although the assistant was described as a passionate supporter of UNC athletics, the inspiration came from her experience as a student where the professors (in her mind) unfairly catered to the “best and the brightest” of the students, leaving everyone else to struggle though. The department chair who took a lax approach to the independent study courses evidently also sympathized with the plight of student athletes because of two of his former students were expelled for academic reasons. One was murdered shortly after expulsion. The other went to jail.

Once the word got out about the program, institutions within the school such as fraternities and athletics departments took advantage of the classes in large numbers, with the result that many fraternity members “accidentally” minored in African American studies–something that the administrative assistant did not like, but wasn’t something that could stop without putting an end to the entire program.

I should reiterate: this is a failure of academics, administration, oversight, ethics, etc, etc. BUT: the students who the programs were designed to help are the students most in need of help and are often left behind by academic programs for cultural, environmental, and institutional reasons. This does not justify what happened, but neither is this only an example of corruption spreading from college athletics into the academy. There are blame and failures to go around, and the exploitation of a deeply flawed, but well-meaning system is not limited to the athletic department. The intent was to keep students enrolled so that they could benefit from the promise of a better life provided by college.

In fact, what troubles me the most is that those same people who the designers of the program intended to help remain at risk, while people who didn’t necessarily need the help benefited from it. There needs to be systemic overhaul on account of what went down, but imagining the academy as a virtuous entity, its integrity encroached upon by money-sports are willfully ignorant and are using the athletics as a scapegoat. Too, this vitriol is often a product simply of not liking sports. Thus they try to sever the connection between athletics and sports. There are a number of problems, but one of the big ones is not the relationship of money-sports with the academy, but the relationship more broadly of money with the academy.

Let me conclude with this. I have an extreme dislike of the rhetoric about democracy, but one of its core principles is an equal opportunity for education. At-risk and underprepared students, whether they are athletes, from inner cities, from poor backgrounds, non-native english speakers, or have mental health problems, are the hardest to ensure that right for and are the ones in need of most support. UNC’s program is not the answer, particularly because it circumvented learning rather than enabling it. Everyone, students, teachers, administrators, support staff–as well as legislators who fund college systems–need to create an environment in which any person who wants an education can get one. Of course it isn’t that simple. Students need to be proactive about their own learning and professors need to be more open to helping underprepared students, but it starts with the environment.

–I am also interested to hear other reactions to this story. The athletics angle is pretty well covered by the national media, but I am willing to hear out the case that athletics are the real problem here.

College Athletics, Academics, and Student Success

There are a host of problems with the system of college athletics. For one thing, it is exploitative of the student athletes, even for those athletes who receive a full scholarship for the duration of their stay at the university.[1] For another, professors and aspirant professors (such as graduate students) grouse that the athletic budgets continue to rise while the academic budgets fall, so that top-tier universities have become sports conglomerates with an attached institution of higher education.[2] It is naive and simplistic to blame athletics for the tribulations of academia, though. And college athletics, whether it is a football game or march madness or some other sport, can be fun to watch.[3] It is also rewarding to watch students succeed in and out of the classroom both. For the students trying to become professional athletes the first measure of that success would be getting drafted and so it was cool to see a student succeed in last night’s NBA draft. Not in a “cool, I knew that person with national name recognition way,”[4] but in a v. public recognition of one student’s success way.

[1] According to the NCAA website, the percentage of student athletes on athletic scholarships in college are less than two percent. There are a number of documentaries, particularly in the ESPN 30 for 30 series, that deal with the issue of NCAA regulations and exploitation of student athletes and take all sorts of different perspectives about payments. “Pony Excess” examines the scandal at SMU in the 1980s and treats the situation as a dirty, out of control system of payments. On the other end of the spectrum, “The U” looks at the University of Miami scandals a decade later and the participants revel in the fact that they broke the rules because the system was unfair to them. Somewhere in between the two extremes falls “The Fab 5,” which looks at Michigan’s basketball program in the early nineties. While “The Fab 5” is at times hyperbolic about Duke and the monumental shifts in the landscape of basketball at that time, some of the more interesting elements are how it examines the relationship between athletics and profit for the university.

On a related note (although not about college athletics), I highly recommend the documentary “Ballplayer: Pelotero,” which examines the system by which Major League baseball recruits and signs players from the Dominican Republic. The system there is significantly more exploitative than even the NCAA is.

[2] There is truth to this statement, even though most sports don’t actually make money beyond attracting students. Using information for 2008 published by ESPN, I created a quick cross-section of some D1 institutions. With budgets sometimes well in excess of one hundred million dollars, eight of the nine institutions sampled ran a surplus, but once university subsidies are again taken out of the revenue, only three did so. Three of the schools operated with deficits of more than ten million dollars. The actual numbers, particularly for media revenue, have changed since 2008, but I suspect that it remains an exemplary sample overall.

I do not mean to declaim collegiate athletics or to self-righteously declare that that money would be better spent on academic scholarships, library books, humanities centers or hiring more tenure track professors, although all those would be in my own personal self-interest. Much of that money, including the money supplied by the university, may not exist without collegiate athletics. There are studies that convincingly demonstrate that successful sports programs bring in donations and increase the number of applications the university receives. Sports, more than academics at most universities, create a national brand and raise the profile of the university that can (even though it does not always) create a symbiotic relationship that bolsters both the athletic and academic programs. I should also note that the most noxious fact on the ESPN chart is that pay for coach often far exceeds the tuition expenses. In athletics, just as in academics…and in the rest of US society, it seems that there is a growing gap in benefits for upper level administrators and the workers. Of course, largely unlike many university presidents, the football coaches are actually critical for the success of the football programs, which leads back to the hope for the ideal symbiosis of athletics and academics.

[3] While the NCAA’s feel-good commercials about helping student athletes succeed in school and then in a career once their playing days are over seem rather phony,[3b] there is some truth to this. Most of the student athletes will not go on to be paid for playing the sports, either. There are also a myriad of other emotions teaching these students, from horror stories about runaway egos, to apathy, to the detachment experienced when national announcers praise a student for being such a vocal and active leader while that same student quietly goes about his business in the classroom. In my experience they are much like other students except longer, broader, lithe-r, and with more demands on their time.

[3b] Phony because like all major sporting organizations, the NCAA is basically a protection racket being run for money-making interests…and one that does more to provide a show of legitimacy than one with actual power over those interests. To wit: the NCAA office of enforcement has a v. limited budget and limited power to investigate or enforce rules. A recent report at Sports Illustrated revealed that the enforcement office itself was in disarray in large part because the president of the NCAA ignored internal reports about payments being made at the University of Miami and then acted shocked when the allegations were presented to them publicly. The V.P. of enforcement was then fired and others have stepped down. This evidently leaves a nominal staff of 60 enforcement personnel, with just two with investigators with experience in football or basketball cases. The enforcement office is still more than two grizzled old cops in a water closet conducting investigations, but there are 125 FBS football schools, more FCS, and hundreds of other sports teams across the country, so the office is heavily dependent on college enforcement offices to do the actual heavy lifting on rules enforcement. This may at times turn out to be a conflict of interest.

[4] Collegiate basketball players good enough to be drafted already had national name recognition.