Over the course of the past two seasons, the Syracuse Orange basketball team has experienced its fair share of academic related controversy.
Starting with the mysterious Fab Melo situation that plagued the 2011-12 season, which had an impact on one of Jim Boeheim's best teams ever, to last season's term paper fiasco with senior James Southerland, it seems like there is some issue at SU every season at this point.
Though, Southerland's situation ended with a better outcome than Melo's, the Syracuse fan base has become guarded with things like this. At this point, if Syracuse basketball isn't on the court fans are expecting the worse when it comes to the 24-hour sports news cycle.
Another ACC fan base, the North Carolina Tar Heels, is now dealing with academic issues, however, on a much larger scale and for a longer period of time.
If you haven't been paying attention, UNC is currently in a war of words with a worker in its Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling, Mary Willingham.
According to Willingham, who CNN and ESPN's Outside The Lines lists as a reading specialist at the university, a scary percentage of athletes in the school's money making sports, such as football and basketball, read at a middle-school level. Worse, some can't even read or write.
As a graduate student at UNC-Greensboro, Willingham researched the reading levels of 183 UNC-Chapel Hill athletes who played football or basketball from 2004 to 2012. She found that 60% read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels. Between 8% and 10% read below a third-grade level.
On Tuesday night, Willingham was on OTL speaking about this situation. While she was talking, ESPN flashed her research findings at the bottom scroll and I did what I think many college sports fans do when these stories pop-up -- giggle, grin and mock the NCAA's "student athlete."
In a way, we have become immune to these types of stories because we continue to learn about them not only nationally, but in Syracuse, locally as well.
But, it wasn't until I read this piece at SB Nation's The Tar Heel Blog that I actually understood what Willingham is trying to accomplish.
(I highly recommend reading the piece, as it explains what is going on at UNC very well.)
See, at first I thought Willingham was just trying to blow the lid off of a problem that casual sports fans already knew about. Like most of these stories, we understand that it happens and it probably will never get fixed because a majority of sports fan don't really care -- JUST WIN, BABY!
My view changed a bit when I became aware of the e-mails that Willingham wrote to UNC's Executive Vice Provost James W. Dean Jr. and Lissa Broome, a law professor who is the faculty representative to the NCAA. In these e-mails, Willingham makes two basic points: 1) 60-percent of the athletes barely meet the requirements to be accepted into a junior college let alone a four-year university; 2) instead of helping these kids LEARN TO F****** READ!, UNC has instead created a "paper-class system" to make sure their GPAs were high enough to stay eligible. (A paper-class system is the practice of creating a class out of thin air that does not physically exist.)
Again, I am not naive to think some strings don't need to be pulled to make sure some players, who come from the hell holes of America, are able to play football or basketball or whatever to help themselves get out of their past situation and give them hope for a future. Sometimes, this is their only ticket out and it would be nearly impossible for them to keep the grades at a major university -- especially if they can't read or write.
However, I get a feeling Willingham isn't saying, "we need to hold these kids to a higher standard of education." Instead, she is saying, "THESE KIDS CAN'T READ OR WRITE! CAN WE PLEASE HELP THEM READ AND WRITE INSTEAD OF CREATING FAKE CLASSES TO MAKE IT LOOK LIKE THEY CAN!!!!"
And that's the whole point, and is why we should actually not overlook this story by giggling and grinning at the statistics scrolling at the bottom of the TV screen, or ridiculing players by calling them stupid or blasting the academic advisers for not doing their job -- which, as I understand, is making sure the student's academic troubles get swept under the rug so they can play ball.
Instead, you should call for some type of NCAA reform to help these kids at least be able to read and write by the time they leave college, like Willingham is trying to do, even if they are only there for one or two years.
As I read more about the UNC situation, the more I pondered about the Fab Melo situation.
I first think back to when the Fab story broke and how lost we all felt because nobody had any idea about how it happened or how it was being resolved. We thought it had been taken care of when Fab returned to the team, only to lose him for the NCAA Tournament a few months later, and the curse of the Syracuse big men continued.
The aftermath featured a majority of the fan base killing Melo for his apparent stupidity because "if he wasn't so dumb we would have gone to a Final Four". Now, the thought of Melo brings a lot of jokes, head shaking and the question, "What is he doing now?"
(Apparently, he is just a normal dude.)
Now, after reading about UNC, I can't help but think if SU (or the current academic system in place) letdown Melo. Sure, he probably could have spent less time partying and more time in the classroom, that's a given. (Couldn't we all have in college?) But, was the system set in place flawed from the start? Should a better system be in place to help out "student athletes" get somewhat of an education -- crap, any type of education -- while their at school? Heck, from what we know now about UNC, if Melo was a Tar Heel would an academic problem have ever popped-up?
I would like to think that Syracuse University does a better job than UNC, Florida State, Miami or any other ACC school when it comes to these matters. However, I am not naive enough to believe it may not. And if that is the case, shouldn't we all take a bit of responsibility in helping these kids learn to at least read and write?
Now that I think about it, yes.