Two former athletes at the University of North Carolina havefiled a lawsuit against their alma mater and the National Collegiate Athletic Association, accusing them of academic fraud. College athletes who sue for compensation is an old story. But, in this instance, Rashanda McCants, a former women’s basketball player, and Devon Ramsay, who played football, are suing because, they say, they didn’t receive a meaningful education. They are seeking class-action status, damages for some athletes and changes in academic oversight.
They have a credible case. In October, the university released a report by Kenneth Wainstein, a former general counsel at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, finding that from 1993 to 2011 thousands of students, almost half of them athletes, took classes that did not require work or that didn’t really exist. Students signed up for “independent study” courses in which they never met their professors and for lecture classes that never took place.
The failure to treat “student-athletes” as actual students goes beyond North Carolina. The lawyers representing Ms. McCants and Mr. Ramsay know that and take a swipe at the whole collegiate-athletic system: “The N.C.A.A. and its member schools insist that their mission and purpose is to educate and to prevent the exploitation of college athletes,”the lawsuit states. “Yet it is the schools, the conferences, and the N.C.A.A. that are engaging in exploitation, subverting the educational mission in the service of the big business of college athletics.”
Though it has yet to comment, the N.C.A.A. is well aware that it has a problem: It is investigating 20 universities on suspicion of academic misconduct, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. At a convention this month, the N.C.A.A.’s president, Mark Emmert, said the association had to “emphasize the centrality of academic success as the touchstone for why we participate in collegiate athletics” and wondered whether it needed to “consider new approaches — bolder, broader approaches?”
That rhetoric sounds nice, but the N.C.A.A. has historically stood in the way of reform by perpetuating the myth that being a “student” is always compatible with being an “athlete.” A swimmer, for instance, might manage to split time between the library and the pool, but a quarterback at one of the Big Five conferences probably can’t pull that off. The latter is an unpaid professional: He generates money for his coach, his athletic director, his university’s administrators — everyone but himself — and is expected to practice up to 50 hours a week during the football season.
What happened at North Carolina is shameful but not surprising. Until the N.C.A.A. recognizes that some players are essentially professionals, universities will continue to treat their education like the fig leaf it is. Young people enticed by the fantasy that they can play and learn at a high level will continue to suffer the consequences.