(CNN) -- Most kids, and parents, think of college as the place you go to get a "higher education." It didn't turn out that way for at least 3,100 students at the University of North Carolina.
CNN reporter Sara Ganim has been reporting the story out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, that university staff and athletic coaches encouraged student athletes to take "fake classes" in order to get fake grades that would allow them to keep playing sports and spend their extra time practicing instead of studying.
University staff saw so-called paper classes and the artificially inflated grades they handed out "as key to helping some student-athletes remain eligible," a former prosecutor wrote in an independent report documenting 18 years of such cheating. CNN reports at least four UNC employees have been fired and five have been disciplined in the scandal.
"As an athlete, we weren't really there for an education," Rashad McCants, the second-leading scorer on the championship University of North Carolina basketball team 10 years ago, told CNN's Carol Costello. "You get a scholarship to the university to play basketball," he said. In other words, the point wasn't for him to actually learn. That's just sad.
"The university makes money off us athletes," McCants told Costello, "and they give us this fake education as a distraction." When McCants first made these remarks, university representatives tried to shoot the messenger, attacking him and his credibility. Now, an official report suggests that not only was McCants telling the truth but that at least 3,100 other students share his story.
And I think it's safe to assume that while the degree of inventing classes from thin air in order to pass athletes may have reached extreme levels of immorality, if not criminality, at UNC, thousands and thousands of other student athletes have been robbed of a quality education at universities all across America because their bodies are treated as far more important than their minds.
Players and their loved ones are understandably angry. In March, Northwestern University's scholarship football players won the right under the National Labor Relations Board to form a union. Players voted in April, though the results have not yet been made public. If the union vote succeeds by a majority vote, the athletes could be covered by workers' compensation, qualify for unemployment benefits and even participate in revenue sharing.
As is, football players are practicing 50 to 60 hours a week — more than most full-time jobs — and risking all kinds of long-term health effects, not the least of which are head injuries. In rare cases, players who are hurt can have their scholarships revoked and lose access to whatever paltry education they were receiving in the first place.
These kids, many of whom are young black men, are plainly being exploited. As the hype around college sports has intensified — especially the astronomical money to be made by universities in increasingly lucrative TV deals — universities have gained more and more from sports programs. Meanwhile, the demands on student athletes have risen as well, but the compensation and support for athletes have remained the same. College sports increasingly look just like professional sports except for one big difference: the amateurish, abusive treatment of college athletes.
Not surprisingly, universities and their athletic departments oppose college players forming unions. "I look at them as part of our family in a way," University of Oklahoma football coach Bob Stoops told ESPN around the time of the Northwestern vote. "We're here to support them and help them in every way possible, and help guide them and help them get their education and develop them to be as good of athletes as they want to be."
Family, eh? That's a coded metaphor: the coach and university as the strong parents, the students as kids who should just be grateful for a roof over their heads and do whatever they're told.
How does that play out in real life? One study found that 10% of University of Oklahoma athletes in sports that make revenue read below a fourth-grade level. "College presidents have put in jeopardy the academic credibility of their universities just so we can have this entertainment industry," Oklahoma professor Gerald Gurney, who conducted the study, told CNN. That "entertainment industry" seems to be working fine for the pseudo "parents" who run college sports. This season, coach Stoops will be paid $5.25 million.
It's not looking likely that my own daughter, who is in first grade, will eventually get a sports scholarship to college. She's still trying to figure out her left foot from her right foot. But if she gets a music scholarship or a drama scholarship or maybe some recognition for macrame skills or what have you, I fully expect that her talent will be fully drawn upon while she's at college — but also that she'll get an education.
After all, most French horn players don't go on to careers in professional orchestras — they become doctors or lawyers or accountants or elementary school teachers. And for that, they need an education. The same is true of college athletes. The vast majority won't play post-college professional sports, and they need that education, not just a nominal version but a quality one, to prepare for later in life.
My view is that elite college athletes should form unions. There are plenty of practical reasons why, as effective athletic employees, they should do so. But at the very least, the basic bargain of college scholarship sports — that you play on the team in exchange for an education — shouldn't be a con game, with students worked to the bone but robbed of the chance to learn. Let's hope the revelations at UNC will help start to fix this profound problem in college athletics.