I sympathize with journalists. I really do. I married an escapee from the profession, and I have a great fondness for the only paper I ever subscribed to, the Raleigh News and Observer. I want it to be a good paper. Hell, I'd settle for it to be the same dimensions as it was twenty years ago and not half-written in Charlotte.
Even this is not entirely the N&O's fault. They've fallen into a routine — the paper makes a records request, buttresses it with the occasional interview, and then based on what they learn make another request. It's just that between every request they write a story, and rarely is there much new information. It's not so much the slow reveal of Chinese water torture as it's the sensation of having an obnoxious pop song played over and over again.
This weekend's story rests on two revelations. One is that freshmen were taking AFRI 370, a senior-level class that appears to be entirely paper-based. This is somewhat new information — although the N&O had accused freshman of taking “upper-level” classes before, that seemed to be based entirely on the fact that Introductory Swahili had a 400-level course numbering. AFRI 370 specifically says in the course catalog that it's intended for seniors, yet several freshmen took in 2010. Damning, but damning to the same members of the department who were already crooked.
The part of the story that's getting the most attention is the other revelation. In e-mails the academic support staff complained about athletes not paying attention and doing substandard work. This shocking paper trail reveals that the tutors had the same opinion of their charges as basically every other tutor since time immemorial. Seriously, I was a physics tutor and later a graduate student T.A., never came within a mile of a student athlete and still thought the folks I was tutoring were often morons. Sometimes they came to work, and other times their apparent desire was to see how long I could last before stabbing someone with a pencil.
What I really miss from these pieces is context, I suppose. There are things that bother me, especially as someone who was never thrilled with the extensive academic support poured into athletics in the first place. But I have no bearings. UNC accepted 53 players as academic exceptions in the last five years — roughly ten a year, or 40% of the allowed scholarships. Well, is that a lot? What are the numbers for schools of similar academic standing. North Carolina has an academic support staff for athletics of about 120 people. If I look at it from one angle that seems obscene, from another perfectly rational. Which is it? How do other schools match up?
I happen to know plagiarism is one of the most hotly discussed topics among college administrators these days. There's talk that students don't even recognize what it is anymore, let alone that they've fallen afoul of it. Are the UNC athletes worse than their fellow students in this regard? I'm genuinely curious, but I can't seem to get any of this information from the local paper. Heck, they're just now catching on to what college students have known for twenty-plus years — Portuguese is an easy language course.
If nothing else, the current line of reporting allows much of this to be dismissed by Carolina fans as something that happens everywhere, but only caught in Chapel Hill. This may be the case, or UNC could be uniquely corrupt. The problems that arise when athletics and academic standards have been talked about for a hundred years, and I'm trying to determine where this fits in. Instead, I'm just reading stories geared to make the university a punchline; an outlier. And I really want to know if that's the case.