Roundtable on the Cancelled Sport History Course at North Carolina

By Andrew McGregor

Recently the University of North Carolina (UNC) cancelled history professor Jay Smith’s class “Big-Time College Sports and the Rights of Athletes, 1956-Present.” The Daily Tar Heel reported that the department was “under pressure from the college to cancel the class to prevent students from learning about the University’s recent scandals.”  His colleagues rallied to his support, decrying the decision as a violation of academic freedom and the policies outlined by the school’s accrediting agency that give control of curriculum content to the faculty. Yet, there was no mention of the controversy surrounding the cancelled course in the UNC history department’s Spring 2017 newsletter. Historians across the country reacted to the news on social media, joining the chorus of concerned academics who viewed the cancellation of further proof that North Carolina has kowtowed to big-time athletics and lost sight of its academic mission.

News of the cancellation, which took place at the end of the fall semester, reemerged in mid-April, following North Carolina’s triumph at the Final Four of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Many in the media described the victory as a redemption for the embattled school and the team, who finished as runner-up the previous year. Some suggested that the national championship would make fans forget about the on-going NCAA investigations into academic fraud that included fake classes created to keep North Carolina athletes eligible. CBS sportscaster, Jim Nantz, was among those attempting to conceal the severity of the scandal and banish it from the headlines. During one of the Tar Heels’ semifinal win over Oregon, he bemoaned the treatment of North Carolina, suggesting that there was little truth behind the accusations. “They’ve had to live with all of this, all the swirling innuendo with what went on there with all the academic fraud allegations.” North Carolina seemed to disagree, spending over $18 million in fees to lawyers, public relations firms, and special investigators to address the scandal.

I only learned about the cancellation of Professor Smith’s class after the History News Network picked it up, and many of my sport history colleagues shared it on Twitter. Quickly, I began thinking about what it means for academics in a highly charged political moment as well as sport historians who teach and research at institutions torn between their educational missions and protecting their “brand.” We hastily assembled this roundtable, during a busy grading period for many of us, in hopes of sharing the perspectives of a few academic currently wrestling with those issues. We also solicited responses on social media. Below are answers from Richard O. (Dick) Davies to our prepared questions, and submitted reflections from Katherine Walden and a UNC alum who request anonymity. Please feel free to add your own thoughts and perspectives to the questions and issues raised in this roundtable in the comments.

1) What was your reaction to the news about the cancellation of the sport history class at UNC? Does it make you concerned about the future potential of policing courses based on content, particularly in this political climate? Although Professor Smith is tenured, how might the increasingly contingent nature of faculty members undermine the academic freedom to offer courses like this?

Dick:

On the evening of April 3 of this year I sat in the University of Phoenix football stadium amidst some 20,000 blue-clad North Carolina fans as the Tar Heels won yet another NCAA men’s basketball championship. As they cut down the nets and the ecstatic fans around me cheered I wondered how many of those fans were thinking about the massive academic scandal that has engulfed the Carolina athletic program. Not many, I surmised. The allegations that some 3,100 students over more than two decades (approximately half of them “student-athletes”) had received high grades in classes that apparently had never met or had minimal requirements, with the final grades reportedly often determined by the secretary in the Department of African and African-American Studies, has created an ongoing saga of allegations and counter arguments on the Chapel Hill campus and around the world of American higher education. At a press conference in Phoenix on the eve of the championship game with Gonzaga, coach Roy Williams proclaimed, “We have done nothing wrong” and lamented the issue had hurt recruiting.

The latest twist in this ongoing saga has been that a course in sports history offered by tenured professor Jay Smith has been cancelled for the next academic year for reasons that remain in dispute. He and his colleagues believe that high administrative folk do not want him to talk about the scandal in his class, drawing upon a book about the scandal that he and former tutor (and whistleblower) Mary Willingham published in 2015. Administrators, of course, profess innocence. When I heard of this latest twist to a sorry story I was not surprised, but appreciated that the decision to cancel the class only added fuel to the fire of suspicion that all is not right on the UNC campus when it comes to the integrity of the high profile men’s basketball and football programs. If ever there was an example of lack of “institutional control” this seems to fit perfectly the definition of one of the cardinal sins that NCAA committees have so often in the past identified in other cases of major violations. If I were not retired and still teaching my “Sports in American Life” course I would have included the North Carolina issue in my discussion of the long history of academic malfeasance that has dotted college athletics for over a century. The efforts of university leaders to assess responsibility to a few individuals, and especially Ms. Willingham, was to be expected. The NCAA has diddled and dallied for more than three years without rendering a decision in the case, leading many to conclude that it does not want to have to “vacate” national basketball championships that extend back to the days of revered coach Dean Smith because that would suggest that systemic problems exist on Carolina campus, just as they have at many other major universities over the years. Rather, the intent has been to blame a few bad actors, not the entire enterprise of intercollegiate athletics itself. Professor Smith’s supporters are rallying to his side with charges of a violation of his “academic freedom.” That is a reasonable and expected charge, but when placed within the context of the euphoria of Tar Heel Nation as Coach Williams and his team cut down the nets in Phoenix last month, it sadly seems to be of little importance in the grand scheme of things.

 2) How do you approach teaching about the NCAA, amateurism, and the various issues and scandals surrounding big-time college sports? Do you collaborate with the athletic department on your campus or use oral histories from athletes to offer their perspectives?

Dick:

During my fifty years as a professor of history (including seventeen years a senior administrator), I interacted closely with the athletic departments at Northern Arizona University, University of Northern Colorado, and the University of Nevada, Reno. I often had athletes in my classes and attended games on a regular basis. Fortunately, the programs at these universities never engaged in activities that brought down the visitors from the NCAA violation committee. As provost at Nevada I regularly monitored the academic performance of Wolf Pack athletes. In my sports history class I would occasionally invite athletes to comment upon certain issues, but in the main attempted to treat them in the same way as the majority of the students who were not members of a team. Upon one occasion I caught a football player in an obvious plagiarism violation and reported that he would receive a failing grade to the head coach who did not respond, adhering to an institutional policy that coaches could not approach faculty members about a grade.

3) One of the issues at the heart of the UNC incident seems to be reconciling unsavory histories with the university’s overarching brand. This is something we often see in corporate and official histories, and a challenge public historians frequently face. What advice would you give sport historians — as both researchers and teachers — in terms of maintaining harmony with the NCAA and their athletic departments, while still writing and teaching critical sport history?

Richard:

My writings on sports history have taken due notice of the fact that academic fraud has been a constant throughout the history of intercollegiate athletics, and I discussed the issue in my sports history class. I made the point that a large number of major universities with the highest of academic reputations have had their embarrassing scandals. It seems that to many coaches and athletic administrators cheating was par for the course, that their opponents were engaged in such activities, and that it was a necessary practice to remain competitive. But I also pointed out that many academic administrators had little or no experience with competitive athletics and lacked the experience and insights to identify and control renegade programs. I also made the point that responsibility for academic fraud extended to community leaders and boosters, including governing boards. Within this context I have written and taught extensively that major sports programs are a reflection of the larger society where economic competition and winning at any cost is an accepted practice. My first book on American sports history was appropriately entitled “America’s Obsession: Sports and Society Since 1945.”

Andrew:

Dick, sorry for being redundant, but this is a follow up to the previous two questions. You take a bit of a cynical view of the NCAA in your textbook (and in your classes, from what I recall). Yet you are friends with former NCAA President Joe Crowley, and hired an athletic director during your time as Provost at Nevada. How did these experiences shape your view? Have you or were you able to maintain a friendly relationship with the athletic department despite your critiques?

Dick:

Yes, I have written extensively of the hypocrisies of intercollegiate athletics but have always enjoyed a cordial relationship with athletic directors and coaches. I have been supportive of their efforts because they have adhered to the rules and have never been involved in anything approaching major violations of the massive NCAA policy manual. My suspicions, however, are that most athletic department personnel have not read my books or known of my concerns about the ethical issues that I have discussed in my classes. My involvement has always been to support ethical coaches and administrators and to expect such behavior when I was in a senior administrative position. I have often commented that the “front porch” of any American university is the quality and integrity of its athletic program. Sports programs provide the great majority of all media attention devoted to institutions of higher education. That facts has undoubtedly resounded across the campus of the University of North Carolina in recent years.

4) What role can or should the sport historian play in creating change within Athletic Departments and the NCAA? How does the proliferation of sport management programs, which often rely on sport studies scholars, affect or change this role?

Dick:

In the early 1950s the NCAA embarked upon a strategy of emphasizing the concept of the “student-athlete.” This campaign occurred at the time when the NCAA assumed control of the televising of football games, and since that time the myth of the student athlete has been used to ward off the possibility that athletes be deemed employees of the institution and therefore eligible for workman’s compensation payments for serious injuries. Thus athletes are considered by the NCAA as students and are not permitted to receive payment for services rendered beyond the standard tuition and books grants. This has contributed to the outrageous out-of-control salaries of coaches and athletic department administrators that are excused as the “cost of doing business.” The entire NCAA bureaucracy exists to perpetuate this sham, and it uses its power as a cartel to protect its own.

Everywhere I have taught or served in an administrative capacity, I have found that faculty members are resigned to this situation, believing the situation is beyond their control. And many, of course, are avid fans of their school’s teams. Reforms such as the Carnegie Commission of the late 1920s, the advocates of the Sanity Code of the 1940s, and the Drake Commission of today have made notable attempts at reform. Those have all ended in frustration and failure. I have no illusion that major reform will occur anytime in the foreseeable future, one reason being that college sports are an obsession that has engulfed substantial segments of the American population. I can recall one telling moment at a University of Nevada System Board of Regents meeting at the time that UNLV was in the process of terminating the employment of controversial basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian. During a break in the proceedings, an irate middle-aged man berated UNLV president Robert Maxson thusly: “You can run your damned university, but leave my basketball program alone!”

5) What are your overall takeaways from this incident?

 Dick:

I see the issue involving the cancellation of a course to be taught by a critic of his own institution’s handling of an academic scandal as merely one more example of a tawdry history that extends back to the earliest days of intercollegiate athletics.

Submitted Comments from Social Media:

Katherine:

Replying re. the UNC roundtable- I’m wondering if the University of Iowa will face any similar questions or pressures in the wake of last week’s Jane Meyer verdict (and the ongoing Civil Rights/Title IX inquiries). Our Sport Studies courses in the American Studies Department include offerings like “Sport and Inequality” and “Women, Sport, and Culture,” which absolutely create space to talk about the things going on in our own athletic department. To my knowledge, there hasn’t been any official University push back on those efforts, but I can certainly see the climate around Title IX classroom discussions changing with the Meyer verdict and the ongoing lawsuits/inquiries the University faces.

I’ve been teaching a self-designed Sport Rhetoric course that meets general education composition requirements, and we spend two weeks each semester talking about civil rights and college sports. Many students are familiar with the Texas Western (Glory Road) & Ole Miss (Ghosts of Ole Miss) stories, and Jaime Schultz’s Moments of Impact is another fantastic entry point. But being able to carry those conversations into the present moment on our own campus to me as a vital way to make sport history relevant to our students. A couple students in my class this semester were intrigued by the Meyer trial and ended up doing primary source research in the Iowa Women’s Archive to learn about the history of Title IX at our University. When it impacts the community they’re in, the financial stakes have very real consequences for them, and they get to observe sport history being written (or at the very least discussed and negotiated)–history becomes tangible.

An anonymous UNC alum:

I was pretty appalled that a tenured Professor in the History Department at UNC-Chapel Hill would have a legitimate class cancelled because powerful forces wanted to quash any further on-campus discussion of a scandal that, arguably, is now permanently part of the school’s legacy. As an alum of the department and university, I want to know that professors have the freedom to, at the very least, teach courses in their respective areas of expertise; I also want them to be able to have the freedom to teach classes on issues that are salient on campus. Sports history is a great way to get prospective students from other departments engaged with the discipline. I specifically remember seeing non-history majors at UNC-CH signing up in droves for Prof. Caddell’s Air Power and Sea Power courses, primarily because the subject matter was of interest to them. Prof. Smith’s class could have elevated the discussion on academic standards and college athletics. Unfortunately, I fear this and other classes deemed controversial or political by some in the administration will be cancelled or denied approval altogether. Worse, instructors, including adjuncts who make up a disproportionate percentage of faculty now, will not propose “radical” course concepts in the first place, knowing their course ideas are likely to be approved only if they fall within certain externally-imposed parameters.

Richard O. Davies is Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Nevada, Reno. He is a former provost and university president and author of the textbook Sport in American Life: A History. You can reach him at ridavies@unr.edu.

Katherine Walden is a PhD candidate in the American Studies-Sport Studies program and is also enrolled in the Public Digital Humanities Certificate at the University of Iowa. Her Twitter handle is @KWaldenPhD, and she has an online presence at www.kwaldenpond.wordpress.com.

Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Purdue University, where he teaches courses in history and African American studies. He is also the founder and co-editor of this blog. You can reach him via email at amcgrego@purdue.edu or on Twitter: @admcgregor85.

One thought on “Roundtable on the Cancelled Sport History Course at North Carolina

  1. Pingback: Review of Sports in American Life | Sport in American History

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