Postdocs for Jocks

The latest UNC scandal reminds us that schools don’t care about whether their athletes can read. I’ve got the solution.

North Carolina Tar Heels
Tar Heels and other college athletes could benefit from scores of dedicated literacy specialists at the ready.

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Who’s got two thumbs, speaks German, and has the answers to both the faculty labor crisis and the metastasizing sports scandals in the fraught world of American higher education? Dieses ich, that’s who. In light of the latest athletics crap show out of the much-in-the-news University of North Carolina, I’ve realized that, just like Hermann Hesse says, I had the answer to everything within me all along. You’re welcome.

A quick overview of the scandal: Mary Willingham, a worker at the UNC Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling, conducted extensive research into the literacy levels of the players on the university’s marquee teams—research, she says, UNC paid for but did not review. What she found was shocking: Some 8 to 10 percent of the students she worked with read at a third-grade level or below. She claims one student who came to see her could not read or write at all; another sought tutoring so that he could finally understand his own press coverage. When she presented her findings, the reaction was swift and severe: UNC disavowed her, both questioning her data and claiming that some of her research made its anonymous human subjects identifiable.

Although some Tar Heel fans are siding with the university (Willingham got death threats), many who are familiar with UNC’s dubious recent record of ethics are firmly in her corner, largely because it was Willingham who blew the whistle on a vast network of academic fraud at UNC in 2012, in which scores of athletes registered for—and received high grades in—courses that never met. “The shadow cast on her research speaks volumes about the university’s unwillingness to come to terms with the undermining of academic standards in the service of athletics,” writes Bloomberg’s Paul M. Barrett, who has covered UNC’s athletics scandals extensively.

Indeed, the ferocity with which UNC has sought to discredit Willingham is disheartening. Presented with evidence that their university is abjectly failing some of its students, UNC officials are, in effect, working to keep these students functionally illiterate, rather than imperil a winning team. This is unconscionable—but there is a solution staring right at us.

Big-time college athletic budgets are massive. Faculty budgets, on the other hand, are a joke, with 76 percent of America’s faculty non-tenure-track instructors who make an average of $2,700 per class. For years, the line of argument from flabby nerds such as myself has been: slash athletics and reallocate the cash into the hallowed halls! Sure, go whine about Herodotus to the CEO of the new college football playoff series. I’m sure he and the provost will share a nice laugh over lobsters stuffed with gold in the VIP skybox.

The kill-sports argument is never going to be taken seriously. Nor should it be. Because in fact college athletics are worthwhile, and worth saving. I have spent years teaching student-athletes on both marquee and regular teams—football and basketball, but also tennis, volleyball, and fencing—and, with the exception of one famous football player who had self-professed “senioritis” and a near-constant concussion, these students have been some of my best. And I’m not alone—just about every professor I know has had more positive experiences with student-athletes than issues. I also understand that athletic scholarships—bankrolled, I am aware, by marquee programs—mean for many kids the difference between a college education and a lifetime of poverty.

And as a former competitive gymnast who left middle and high school early each day to train for five hours, I know firsthand the lifelong benefits of sports. I know discipline: If at first you can’t do something, you practice it thousands of times until you can. I have grit and determination from completing scores of workouts on bleeding hands and with taped ankles. I know how to sacrifice evenings, weekends, a social life, a “normal” body—and I know what it is like to have a second family of teammates, your bonds forged under grueling schedules and shared tears.

And yet, I find it hard to believe these benefits are also dependent upon turning a blind eye to the total exclusion, in some cases, of even remedial academics—upon, in short, completely ignoring the humanity of these young people. As a former Oregon player put it, college athletes are today’s Roman gladiators: fed, feted, and fawned over as long as they provide entertainment in the form of victory—and then, in the slightest moment of weakness, sent to the slaughter, thrown away.

How about this: If you find out a young man at your college doesn’t know how to read, you don’t punish the bearer of this information—you teach him the eff to read. It’s not that hard. Withstanding the tackle of a 300-pound man is difficult. Providing remedial instruction and readiness training to college athletes—or admitting that they are in need of special attention—should not be.

It seems to me that what big-time athletics programs need are scores of dedicated literacy specialists at the ready—if only there were a trained, enthusiastic labor force of them desperate for work. Oh wait, there is.

So here’s my modest proposal: Why not create entire new academic departments, dedicated to tutoring and teaching student-athletes, funded by the athletics programs—but, obviously, not run by them (hello, fake classes). Call the program, I dunno, Postdocs for Jocks. To give each department a middling chance at legitimacy, they could be administered with outside reviewers, maybe from some incorruptible organization like the National Endowment for the Humanities (with positions paid for, collectively and no strings attached, by the schools). To keep everyone honest, each university’s outside reviewer should come from that school’s greatest arch-rival—UNC’s could come from Duke! Ohio State’s from Michigan! Stanford’s from Cal! Oh, the rom-com screenplay possibilities alone.

Seriously, though: Many of these students are in desperate need of help, there are people desperate to give it, and for once the money could be wrangled. (UNC’s 2012 athletics revenue was about $82 million; hiring and housing four new well-paid academic staff would cost about $300,000.) It would help beleaguered athletics programs look better, it would serve the underserved students they are currently exploiting—and it would actually offer a real response to the Ph.D. employment crisis. These would be solid, full-time, “alternative academic” (or “alt-ac”) staff jobs, where literature and composition instructors could put those years of literacy pedagogy to use whilst avoiding the pedantry, back-stabbing, and endless research obligations of the tenure track.

Look, I realize this is a pipe dream. I can already half-compose the righteous pedantic screeds that will be hate-typed in response to this well-intentioned plea. No big-time athletic department is ready to embrace and confront its academic shortcomings, and nobody is more aware than I that too many academics turn their noses up at anything less than that vaunted tenure-track professorship.

But if you don’t want to teach football players about Sisyphus all day, that’s your problem—I’d be delighted to do it, and I bet a lot of other Ph.D.s would be, too. Using a rather negligible amount of a powerhouse school’s sports budget to fund a remedial-academics department would help the students, help the programs, and offer a rewarding career option to those either fed up with or shut out of the traditional academy. It’s a win-win. So maybe it’s time for academics to stop clawing at the crumbling ivory tower while lamenting the gleaming football stadium next door—and just go enter the damn stadium.