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Dear sports media: UNC is not your morality pet

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The UNC scandal is awful, but the people on the outside disparaging it are complicit as well.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional-Kentucky vs North Carolina Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

A few days ago, Fox Sports published this take about UNC Basketball’s run to the Final Four. I encourage you not to follow the link because it’s garbage, but here are some choice quotes:

Nearly two years later, however, the case continues to drag on due to a series of unusual maneuvers by each side... Which has worked out exceptionally well for North Carolina.

...

While [Roy Williams’] frustration with the long wait is understandable, perhaps he should also feel a bit grateful for the opportunity it provided.

...

Knowing the severity of the allegations, other schools might have begged for mercy by self-imposing a postseason ban. North Carolina has done the opposite. It’s stalled, obfuscated and contested the NCAA’s authority, which has only served to draw out an already laborious process even further.

Essentially, writer Stewart Mandel tries to make the case that UNC basketball has somehow benefited from the NCAA investigation that has been plaguing the entire university for close to a decade, and specifically from the continued extension of this case, which he argues is mostly, if not entirely, UNC’s fault.

First of all, this shows a total lack of understanding of the situation, which has been discussed at Tar Heel Blog and other places numerous times. The most egregiously wrong thing about this take is that it considers UNC Basketball as the only UNC sports program, just because it is the most visible. For example, UNC Football has been punished once already, but Mandel ignores this because it doesn’t fit with the narrative of institutional obfuscation. This angle has been beaten to death, however, and I’m not interested in wasting words on adding nothing new to the subject.

The second, and much more infuriating, aspect of this article and other viewpoints like it is the implied moral superiority of the writer, his platform, and those who agree with him. He ignores that he and his peers are complicit in the entire system that allows the fraud of high-revenue college athletics to thrive as it does, and treats the UNC situation as unique and totally self-created instead of as a manifestation of a culture that sports media has had no small part in creating. Now that UNC is in the crosshairs, the University has become Mandel (and others)’s morality pet.

For clarification, the concept of the “morality pet” is a common one in entertainment media; it essentially refers to a minor, relatively harmless character that, through association with a villain, makes the villain more sympathetic. The NCAA is that villain, and in the last several years, UNC has been adopted by media and opposing fanbases alike as the thing to latch on to so they can pretend the NCAA isn’t actually all bad.

Let’s agree on one thing straight off the bat: At the most high-profile universities, high-revenue sports are universally distanced from academics. This doesn’t mean that there is no overlap between high-revenue athletes and “normal” university students, just that an institution’s mindset towards each group is fundamentally different.

Student-athletes in these sports are recruited because they can bring money to the school, similar to how students are accepted and rejected from schools, and sometimes even given scholarships, based on their future earning potential and perceived ability to give back to the school as alumni. The difference is that in the first case, athletes are being asked to provide immediate gratification, while in the latter case, schools are delaying gratification.

This, of course, means that the athlete is under the school’s control much more so than the student is while both are at the university. This isn’t particular to any particular type of school, by the way. Even at Harvard, previously strict rules about scholarships have been relaxed so that head coach Tommy Amaker can recruit players just like he would at a high-major program.

The other difference between an admitted student and a student-athlete is that the former is not at the mercy of the NCAA, which has decided that the way to maintain the supposed integrity of college sports is to make it such that no athlete can use his or her talents for personal gain while under the thumb of the NCAA. The official website of the NCAA says this:

Maintaining amateurism is crucial to preserving an academic environment in which acquiring a quality education is the first priority.

This is a total illusion. The National College Athletics Association is not an academic body, as you can tell from the name. They know and we know that they have no interest in an “academic environment.” Their lionization of athletic contests and corporatization of college athletics are just further proof of this. Non-athletic scholarships don’t prohibit non-athlete students from pursuing part-time jobs or freelance employment opportunities in their chosen fields, which makes the barring of athletes from profiting off sports in any way a very strange societal hypocrisy.

The reason is pretty clear; society doesn’t want to see sports as a legitimate form of employment for anybody but the 0.001% or so of professionals who do make a living off of it. Delving deeper, the possible reasons for this aversion vary: jealousy on the part of society for not being able to translate their joys into gainful employment, a misconceived notion that gainful employment should benefit others and that sports fail to do so (other arms of the entertainment industry often get a pass for this), and, most prominently for men’s football, a fragile masculinity that hates seeing college-age “kids” physically dominate the world in a way that most men in society cannot but wish they could. Not letting them profit off of it is a way to keep that domination in check.

When it comes down to men’s basketball and football, sports media has a key role to play. It is through their lens that most of us experience these sports, so their presentation of it helps to influence our perception of both the events and the athletes. This is... a problem, and this is where things start to get really uncomfortable. Sports media has historically played a pretty unfavorable role when it comes to social issues in sports. The most obvious, if seemingly innocuous, example is the continued use of coded language to describe players of different races.

We’ve all heard it: a white player is “scrappy,” “a gym rat,” “a real student of the game,” “sneakily athletic,” et cetera, while a black player is “a physical specimen,” “a freak,” “a beast,” “a natural/raw athlete,” and other such dehumanizing terms. In environments where black men are the majority, sports media helps us see most athletes as less than human, which, again, makes us much more comfortable with their conscription.

Sports media also separates athletes from the rest of us with the way they profile people. They create an image of people from downtrodden, crime-ridden areas finding solace in sports to the extent that they make it to the big leagues. I’m not saying this doesn’t happen, but it’s not often, and it’s certainly not the norm. Most athletes come from the same backgrounds as the rest of us do, but because of the image peddled by a lot of sports media, we think of them as a separate class of people.

This separation from the rest of us is what allows us to accept that athletes at high-profile universities might not fit the academic profile of the average student at these universities, and this is fine. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement in that regard: the school benefits by revenue, and the athlete gets an opportunity to showcase his ability for the future. Besides, the conception that universities have to be academic in nature is in itself misguided. Universities prepare their students for their future, in whatever nature that may be; just look at UNC’s Mission Statement. And, once again, this isn’t limited to UNC, or for that matter, any school or group of schools. Every school that participates in the NCAA is complicit.

And yet, this one case at UNC has somehow caused media outlets and opposing fanbases alike to band against UNC and everything it supposedly stands for, as if it’s different from the various schools across the country that pretend to care about their high-revenue athletes as students. We can’t make the allegation that exactly what happened at UNC is happening everywhere, but for supporters of programs and an NCAA system that serve(s) as conduit(s) for one-and-done talent in basketball, where an athlete needs only to pass two classes before going pro, it’s an absolute joke to claim that academics remain the first priority.

In the case of UNC, it boils down to the specifics. It’s extremely convenient for these opponents that the implicated department is that which was formerly known as AFAM (African American Studies), which has since been rebranded to AAAD (African, African-American, and Diaspora studies). It’s been common practice to pretend that its involvement in the scandal devalues African-American studies as an academic field of study, with some even suggesting that this field might have even been created in order to help athletes who couldn’t handle “real” academic rigor.

This claim is patently ridiculous, as seen by the numerous scholars across the country who specialize in African-American studies or similarly named subjects, but it’s an easy scapegoat. It’s a relatively new field, so a significant portion of the population isn’t familiar with it as an academic field of study. In the United States, it is almost completely occupied by African Americans, which allows a majority of the population to treat it as Other, as something that doesn’t apply to them. Scapegoating the department for the scandal shifts the blame squarely and solely onto UNC’s shoulders instead of keeping it with the entire institution of college sports, where it should lie.

So, to college sports media and fans of non-UNC schools, I implore you to make peace with the fact that in the field that you cover, exploitation is the norm, not the exception. Acting like the situation at UNC is a problem and not a symptom is at best ignorant and at worst willfully hypocritical. And if you really, truly care about the education of high-profile student athletes, then support schools like UNC, which has made a crucial reform that any athlete offered a scholarship will be given the ability and opportunity to earn his or her degree, regardless of how much time it might take due to professional obligations.

Pretending that the NCAA is in the moral right doesn’t help anybody except for a racist narrative that says the achievements of athletes aren’t equal to the achievements of the rest of us. UNC may have been involved in terrible goings-on, but acting like they were antithetical to the status quo of any other high-profile university, or the NCAA, or the people and media supporting them, is just flat-out wrong.