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UNC’s athletes deserve to attend the university

It’s insulting to talk about student-athletes as if they don’t belong at the universities they represent

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina Midnight Madness Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Scandals revolving around the education of student-athletes in college are generally awful. They cheapen the idea of college athletics, they often end up punishing innocent student-athletes, and they reinforce stereotypes that only encourage exactly the kind of structures that create these scandals in the first place.

But that doesn’t make all public outcry about such scandals right, or fair. There are a few particular talking points that get recycled around the country that pretend to take the moral high road, but really just disguise some ugly sentiments. One of those is “universities are robbing athletes of their education,” which is fairly obviously wrong after even a second of thought; universities are big and full of legitimate educational opportunities for people who want to take them. Athletes are not completely subject to their advisors.

But the fieriest of takes is one that was recently stated by an opinion writer to the News and Observer on September 27th:

On the hardwood and on the gridiron, universities should not be represented by mercenaries. What (sic) to see how good a coach really is? Let him or her develop a team from actual students - without interfering in admissions or enrollment.

(emphasis mine)

It’s easy to see the problematic nature of the parts I’ve bolded there; implying that specifically basketball and football players are not legitimate students but mercenaries who do nothing at a university but show up to play sports is pretty insulting (and while I have some ideas as to why the writer singled out basketball and football, they would distract from the point here). More than that, though, the attitude that sports are somehow an illegitimate form of education needs to die. There’s no good reason to think that sports at the highest levels are the domain of meatheads, the intellectually lazy, or anybody who doesn’t deserve to be at a university. Let’s get this out of the way: sports are hard work. At high levels, they have very little in common with the games we play at our neighborhood parks, our backyards, or even our high schools. Simplifying them and de-legitimizing them by comparing them to common games is doing athletes a disservice. Their bodies and minds are dedicated to their work, much more so than for most of us in our own occupations. And further, entertainment is a valid career. Entertainment is inextricably linked with the arts, and the intersection of the two is how society advances. The arts mean nothing if they aren’t appreciated by the masses, and even sports feed into that. Recall the underdog narrative, the existence of sports dynasties, narratives of brotherhood and teamwork, and all sorts of other stories told by sports. And this connection makes sports an academic endeavor.

Sure, it’s not education as we typically think of it, but at a university, what really is? My first semester at UNC, one of the seminars offered was about the Japanese technological monster, a fancy way of hiding the fact that the entire class was about Pokemon. People across the country major in dance, which isn’t too far removed from sports. But something about sports inspires people to think that the people who participate in them aren’t as intelligent as people who pursue other non-traditional educational avenues. Part of it is probably old-fashioned “jock” stereotypes, which are thankfully dying. There’s also the fact that people tend to equate eloquence with intelligence, and I think it’s non-controversial to say that most televised interviews with athletes aren’t extremely stimulating stuff. But even judging eloquence based on responses given to repetitive, cookie-cutter questions is misguided; there are standard responses to nearly everything we see athletes getting asked. And besides that, it’s fairly elitist to think somebody has to be dumb because their speech doesn’t match our idea of what intelligent speech should sound like. To use an analogy to more “typical” educational standards, I’ll talk about a couple of my friends from UNC. One is now in graduate school at Yale. Another is in medical school. I doubt either could label a map of the United States, and yet they’re afforded a privilege that high-level athletes aren’t for a similar, elementary deficiency.

So stop saying that sports aren’t something worthy of being learned at a college, or that people who do can’t occupy the same academic space as non-athletes. It’s lazy, discriminatory, and wrong. Athletic programs do not detract from the universities they’re attached to.