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Silencing the Spoilsports: How ‘Pay the Players’ Drowned Out College Sports’ Fiercest Critics

Jon Ericson, the 84-year-old former provost of Drake University, lives in a waterfront condominium in Coronado, California, with dueling views of San Diego Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

Despite the scenery at hand, the retired educator’s eyes are often fixed on his computer screen, with the travails of college sports never far from his mind.

This past summer, a friend who lives in his condo complex, casually familiar with Ericson’s fixation, emailed along a story that had been published on USA Today’s website. When Ericson read it, he recalls, “My eyeballs dropped out.”

The story featured an interview with David Ridpath, an associate professor of sports business at Ohio University and immediate past president of The Drake Group, a not-for-profit organization that Ericson founded in 1999 to “defend academic integrity” against the corrosive aspects of college sports.

But here was Ridpath, Ericson’s protégé, publicly joining the chorus of those arguing against universities cutting athletic programs, calling the move a “knee-jerk reaction” that used the pandemic as an “excuse.”

Ridpath’s gripe was aimed at university administrators and athletic directors, whom he saw as unfairly scapegoating Olympic sports athletes in order to shelter football and men’s basketball budgets. But Ericson recoiled at his friend’s suggestion that there was something inherently wrong about wanting to reduce scholarship sports on college campuses.

Not long before, he had sent Ridpath an unpublished essay he had written, titled, “Face it, No One Cares,” which criticized mid-major schools such as Ohio for charging students higher and higher tuition and fees to fund sports programs that, as Ericson put it, “no one cares about.”

“That is why the Have Nots should stop wasting money on programs that are not central to the mission of the institution and have no demand,” Ericson wrote.

Now, he wondered, with no little exasperation: When did the mission of The Drake Group become protecting college sports?

‘That ship sailed so long ago’

Not since it began its hyper-commercialized climb in the mid-1980s has intercollegiate athletics faced a public pushback like it has over the past 18 months. Beginning in September 2019 with the approval of California’s Fair Pay to Play Act, the first state law allowing college athletes to earn money from their names, images and likenesses, the NCAA’s core tenet of amateurism has been put on the chopping block.

But as athlete-rights reforms, especially in the economic sphere, have gained public popularity and political salience, other critiques and critics of college sports have retreated from the conversation. This vanishing wing of the opposition was once led by Ericson, and saw big-time sports as a completely commercial pursuit that had nothing to do with a college education, frequently perverting the academic mission with rampant fraud and invariably soaking up resources that would otherwise serve the general student population and, yes, the faculty. They railed not against athlete exploitation but against the damage to higher learning, a concern now rarely heard in the reform conversation. Seldom does the current discussion turn on whether sports elbows out the needs of non-athlete students, or corrupts the curriculum, or squanders the energies of university presidents and regents –– or whether it belongs anywhere near what are supposed to be institutions of higher learning.

In the debate over how to reform college sports, the money-minded appear to have won.

There was a time when academic integrity advocates could find platforms for their anti-jock arguments on the cover of Time magazine, or even a multipart panel discussion on ABC’s Nightline. Not anymore.

“That ship sailed so long ago that it is not even a discussion point anymore,” says ESPN’s Jay Bilas, a former college basketball star at Duke who has become one of the most identifiable pay-the-players advocates.

Indeed, college sports criticism has become consumed by talk of athlete compensation, advancing — implicitly, at least — the idea that if athletes are recognized as workers and allowed to profit from their labor, then the self-asserting ideals of intercollegiate athletics will finally be realized.

As part of this athlete-oriented framing of reform, today’s prominent college sports skeptics are even found arguing that higher ed and athletics are, in fact, too disengaged. That was the underlying contention of a widely tweeted September column by The Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins, who asserted that colleges could “solve some problems” with athletics if they offered a major in sports –– entwining them even more firmly.

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Jon Ericson, founder of The Drake Group, laments the current state of college sports reform. Courtesy Jon Ericson

Once more, Ericson was gobsmacked by a presumed ally. “I remember thinking this is the first Sally column with which I disagreed,” he says. “Guess what? Coaching is about control. Education is about being free from control.”

But it’s not just high-minded sports journalists who have come to see college sports’ failings almost exclusively through the keyhole of athlete financial exploitation.

Civil rights historian Taylor Branch’s 2011 essay, “The Shame of College Sports,” his seminal critique in The Atlantic, poignantly condemned the precepts of intercollegiate amateurism while almost flippantly dismissing the other conceivable shames this big business has wrought.

“The United States is the only country in the world that hosts big-time sports at institutions of higher learning,” Branch wrote. “This should not, in and of itself, be controversial.”

By Ericson’s lights, this should absolutely, in and of itself, be controversial.

He contends that the prioritization of athlete interests, however well-founded and enlightened, has led to a short-sightedness about how big and multifaceted the problem really is. If tomorrow athletes were granted total financial freedom, beyond NIL rights, that would do very little to answer the question of why a multibillion-dollar sports enterprise should enjoy tax-exempt status, governmental support and massive subsidies from everyday college students by being conjoined with the American higher education system.

Like Ericson, Bruce Svare, a University at Albany psychology professor and founder of the National Institute for Sports Reform, places much of the blame on his own side of ivory tower advocates.

“A lot of people who are involved — friends of mine who I was involved with years ago with a lot of these issues —  haven’t really stepped up to the plate in the way in which they should have,” says Svare. “They’ve been more concerned with the commercialization of sports. I understand that. I get that. It’s sexy. It’s something they feel as though they can make a difference on. But from my perspective, it’s misguided.”

Tom Farrey, a former ESPN investigative reporter and now the executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program, believes the money that rained down on the biggest NCAA programs over the past 30 years doomed academic defenders to second-fiddle status.

“It’s become patently clear to everyone that big-time college football and basketball are just as much professionalized as the NFL or NBA,” says Farrey. “If it’s a business arrangement and not an extension of the educational institution,” he says, “how do we sort through the business questions, including the labor question?”

Farrey also credits the “smart pivots” made in recent years by Ramogi Huma, the former UCLA football player who runs the National College Players Association, the country’s leading college athlete advocacy group and a driving force behind the California NIL legislation.

Says Farrey: “Instead of asking people, ‘How can we be more fair to athletes within the current system?’ [Huma] began asking, ‘How does the current system fit with the rights we all have under the Constitution?’”

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NCPA Executive Director Ramogi Huma has been credited for his framing of the college athlete rights conversation. AP/Susan Walsh

While this perspective has proven an effective form of consciousness-raising, it has also shown its limitations in addressing the full suite of college sports’ defects. Consider just the debate over whether schools should be playing fall football during the pandemic: Reformers arguing against playing often defaulted to concerns over athlete safety. At the same time, many athletes, newly inspired by the reform movement, used their voices to lobby for the chance to play — despite the warnings of public health experts against gathering in large groups.

In August, a group of Pac-12 players issued a public list of unity demands, which included allowing any athlete to opt out of playing during the pandemic without losing athletic scholarships or roster spots, for the sake of the athletes’ safety. But #WeAreUnited’s COVID appeals were soon confounded by other players who were part of an emergent #WeWanttoPlay movement, which pushed for college football to proceed during the pandemic.

“We are more likely to get the virus in everyday life than playing football,” Clemson star quarterback Trevor Lawrence tweeted confidently, but unscientifically, on Aug. 9. Lawrence then became his own object counterexample, testing positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 28, which forced him to miss the Tigers’ games against Boston College and Notre Dame, and may have dashed his Heisman Trophy hopes.

“People were conflating issues,” says Bilas. “I liken it to lightning in the area. When there is football being played, and there is lightning in the area, the administrators don’t say, ‘What do you guys think? Do you want to keep playing?’ They say, ‘Everybody off the field. It is a public health issue. You don’t get a say here. We know it’s not safe to play.’”

To what extent should athletes’ voices be elevated when they’re out of their depth—or, as may be the case, when what’s potentially good for the athlete might be problematic for others on campus?

For a variety of reasons, questions like these are now rarely voiced in the reform space. To defend the institution is often viewed suspiciously as an underhanded attempt to preserve the status quo — and whatever exploitation that entails. This suspicion is understandable: After all, no entity has rattled on more relentlessly about the notion of “institutional integrity” than the NCAA, which has had a very insular way of defining what constitutes a “lack of institutional control.”

But a similar insularity has come to define much of the college sports reform movement today — you are either with the athletes, or against them. Then again, critics like Ericson may have inadvertently set this false dichotomy trap decades ago.

 ‘I thought he was nuts’

Ericson says he came to Drake University in 1967 as a “big athletics fan.” He notes this, as he does his ongoing love of the Nebraska Cornhuskers, while also ruing how self-defeating it is for college sports critics to feel they first must flourish their fan credentials before addressing their complaints.

In the early 1980s, when Drake found itself mired in financial distress, Ericson was appointed to the committee charged with reviewing the school’s various academic programs. It was during this work, he says, that he “ran into the academic records” for Drake’s men’s basketball teams, which he calls an “eye-opener.”

Academic scandals are as old as college sports, so much so that uneducated “ringers” on university squads became a pop-culture cliché by the 1930s. Despite calls for reform throughout the 20th century, the scandals never went away, reaching a low point when NFL All-Pro defensive end Dexter Manley testified in tears before the Senate in 1989, revealing that he was illiterate when he matriculated through his Houston high school and Oklahoma State University.

Closer to Ericson’s backyard was another scandal that year involving former Iowa star running back Ronnie Harmon, who testified in a racketeering trial against two sports agents that, to boost his grades, he had taken classes in watercolor painting and billiards and was still allowed to play for coach Hayden Fry despite being on academic probation.

Invoking Harmon’s testimony, The New York Times’ Dave Anderson penned a column proposing that college basketball and football teams include academic information in their media guides. Ericson, then serving as Drake’s provost, had been mulling the same concept. He sent a memo to his school’s president on the subject of “Dealing with the national scandal in intercollegiate athletics,” and proposed that the university disclose information about the courses each athlete was taking along with the names of their instructors.

“Recruiting violations and social misconduct are problems in intercollegiate athletics and are the responsibility of athletics officials and student life officials,” Ericson wrote his boss. “My proposal will expose the problem where it exists and will encourage corrective action on the part of the faculty and academic officials.”

Publicizing the coursework of college athletes — or “disclosure,” as he shorthanded it — was Ericson’s personal mission when he convened the inaugural meeting of The Drake Group in late 1999.

The gathering came just months after the St. Paul Pioneer Press broke the story of a University of Minnesota academic counseling employee, Jan Gangelhoff, who had been secretly writing papers and taking tests for more than 20 men’s basketball players over a five-year period.

Murray Sperber, America’s most famous college sports critic at the time, served as The Drake Group’s inaugural keynote speaker; Sperber was soon to publish his most incisive college sports literary affront, Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education.

Also on hand was William Dowling, an outspoken Rutgers English professor who led a much-publicized faculty movement to rid his university — the birthplace of college football — of Division I athletics. In 1998, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and Rutgers alumnus Milton Friedman excoriated the school’s involvement in college sports in a full-page ad in the student newspaper.

Dowling arrived at the Drake conclave advocating for the national abolishment of athletic scholarships. By cultivating scholarship athletics, Dowling argued, American higher education has only increased the burden on the nation’s secondary education system: Why study math in order to get into college when you can spend your waking hours practicing sports?

“I thought he was nuts,” recalls Ericson. “I said, ‘Dowling, you can’t do that — that will be seen as racist.’ And years have passed, and I think he wasn’t crazy.”

But while Ericson eventually found the argument persuasive, he was right about the blowback Dowling would face. In 2007, following his retirement from the school, Dowling gave an interview to The New York Times to promote his just-published autobiography, Confessions of a Spoilsport, in which he recapitulated his case against athlete grants-in-aid:

“If you were giving the scholarship to an intellectually brilliant kid who happens to play a sport, that’s fine,” Dowling said at the time. “But they give it to a functional illiterate who can’t read a cereal box, and then make him spend 50 hours a week on physical skills. That’s not opportunity. If you want to give financial help to minorities, go find the ones who are at the library after school.”

In response, Rutgers athletic director Bob Mulcahy decried Dowling’s comment as “blatantly racist,” while university president Richard McCormick called it “inhumane.” Dowling punched back, arguing that McCormick was the one exploiting black athletes for their athletic talent while countenancing the soft bigotry of low academic expectations.

In an email interview, Dowling, now 76, chafes at the question of whether his rhetoric was counterproductive to his cause.

“It seems to me that the way you pose the question — nothing against you, it’s the way everyone these days poses the question — shows how deep the corruption of academic and intellectual values has gone,” Dowling says.

“The sorely neglected group in this situation, a very substantial percentage of kids in states with public universities, is those bright and intellectually serious enough to deserve a real education, but who find themselves stranded at Sargasso State in a semi-literate population of ‘students’ whose only idea of college is painting their faces and howling from the stands in a football stadium or basketball arena. At Rutgers, where I taught for more than 20 years, this was overwhelmingly the case by the time I retired. Also a big part of the reason why I retired.”

If Dowling was the most outspoken of The Drake Group originals, then Sperber was the most broad-based in his criticism.

An American Studies professor at Indiana University and later at UC Berkeley, Sperber was instrumental in focusing the debate around the detrimental effects of big-time sports on higher education. Beer and Circus and a previous tome, College Sports Inc.: The Athletic Dept. vs. the University, offered searing criticism of the decline of higher ed generally, and the sports-entertainment complex’s role in festering the rot.

Sperber was keenly aware of the exploitation of college athletes doing entertainment labor under the aegis of amateurism. But the athletes weren’t the only ones being exploited by the massive growth of athletics. Sperber drew parallels between massive wasteful spending on sports and on pricey graduate programs, showing how both undercut resources for not only teaching faculty, but for undergraduate students as well. As a result of decades of choices, in Sperber’s view, universities with big-time sports (and aspiring to have big-time graduate programs) could no longer afford to provide small classroom sizes and a real education. So they offered students something else: a commodified drinking culture coupled with the euphoria of the big game.

Sperber was under no illusions that anyone outside a few academics would want to take him up on his ideas. “For many years, critics of big-time college sports, including this writer in College Sports Inc., have offered long lists of What Should Happen,” he wrote in Beer and Circus, “only to see their ideas crash into What Is Happening — gargantuan growth and commercialization, along with increasing exploitation of athletes.”

Indeed, in the final chapter of Beer and Circus, Sperber saw a future that is rapidly starting to resemble the current moment.

“At the top of What Will Probably Happen in College Sports MegaInc. list is professionalization: college athletes will be paid, either through the NCAA’s own ‘amateurism deregulation’ — its stipends and other payments will grow — or the courts will break the association’s control over wages,” he wrote. “What Will Happen Then? Most probably, the rich conferences and teams will become fully professional, paying their athletes according to their market value, and all other members of Division I and II will have to decide whether they want to compete in professional college sports or not.”

Sperber, who turned 80 last month, has scarcely been heard from of late; he did not respond to numerous requests to comment for this story.

‘I could tell I had made a blunder’

The Drake Group is now in its third decade, but Ericson believes he lost his grip on its wheel at that very first conference in Des Moines, Iowa, in October 1999. Even with so many academic purists in their midst, Drake Group members, as Ericson remembers it, neglected to focus on what he thought should be the core issue: disclosure of bogus curricula.

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Members of The Drake Group convened in 1999 to discuss how to protect higher education from intercollegiate athletics. Courtesy The Drake Group

“As soon as we gathered, I could tell I had made a blunder,” he says. “People came in and they did care about academic integrity, but it got pushed to the end. By the time our conference came to Saturday morning’s last session, the only category that hadn’t been addressed was disclosure.”

One obvious hang-up was student privacy laws, but Ericson’s reading of the Buckley Amendment — now more commonly known as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act — was that it shouldn’t prevent the third-party disclosure of what courses athletes were taking, so long as individual athletes weren’t identified.

Another major champion of disclosure is Svare, who continues to view it as essential in establishing critical “chokepoints” for academics to stand firm in the face of athletics’ interests.

“Right now, in many places, it’s really the athletic departments that are controlling the chokepoints,” says Svare. “That’s because you have a lot of enablers, faculty members who are friends of the athletic department, and all of these no-show majors that have been created and no-show courses that have been created.”

The solution? “Faculty has to step up to the plate and call each other out,” he says.

However, the nitty-gritty of athlete coursework is a concern that may only rile up other academics, which was The Drake Group’s founding target constituency. In any case, as Ericson came to see, professors could only wield so much political power — and most faculty on most campuses are simply not motivated to take on athletics.

“There is no reward for a faculty member to stand up to this problem,” Ericson says. “If you stand up, you are called a racist, you are called ‘against athletics.’ I have heard them all.”

Ericson now says he wishes he had focused his early efforts on bringing everyday college students into the fold, contending that they are the ones whose education suffers at the hands of college sports, which they are often forced to support through earmarked student athletic fees.

“If I look back, the one thing that burns me is you take poor kids going into debt and then you charge them $600 or $700 a year for an athletic program that already gets $15 million a year from TV,” says Ericson. “It just seems immoral to do that. If I were starting over, I would hit on that and try to recruit students to join.”

But more than just audience engagement, Ericson now has doubts about his entire strategy of proxying inferior or compromised schoolwork of athletes for college sports’ subversion of higher education.

“I wish I would have worked on higher education leadership and accreditation agencies and just stayed in my own ballpark,” he says. “Once I tied it to [academic] abuse in athletics, I opened up this huge thing where we are now.”

Where The Drake Group is now, Ericson thinks, is spread too thin: The organization that was founded to be the hub of faculty resistance to college sports currently concerns itself with 19 different issue areas, the plurality of which address athlete welfare.

Such mission creep may have been inevitable. As the money funneling into college sports grew and grew, those who spoke the language of money became more valuable in interpreting the college sports landscape, and the reform movement became populated with economists.

At the top of that list was Andrew Zimbalist.

An economics professor at Smith College who gained renown for publishing books on the business of Major League Baseball and other pro sports, Zimbalist became versed in college sports throughout the 1990s. He noticed the salary discrepancy between the faculty he worked with and the basketball coach across town, John Calipari of UMass, whose $1 million compensation package in the mid-‘90s was 10 times more than that of the highest paid professor at Smith.

In his 1999 book, Unpaid Professionals: Commercialism and Conflict in Big-time College Sports, Zimbalist took the faculty’s side, showing in detail how athletics had lost “all sense of proportion” and often hurt universities’ academic missions. “Schools prostitute themselves by accepting ‘special admits’ and offering them phony curricula,” he wrote. “There is no integrity in this process.”

But Zimbalist also hammered the unfairness to the athletes, who were locked out of market opportunities by the NCAA’s cartel and amateurism rules while coaches and administrators reaped huge salaries and perks. Zimablist’s thesis, and the clear writing style in which he presented it, would help pave the way for the current crop of economists and antitrust legal scholars who have come to dominate the college sports reform discussion.

Ericson specifically credits Zimbalist for being the first to enlighten him about the ulterior motives behind the phrase “student-athlete,” an invention of the NCAA’s first executive director, Walter Byers, to help member institutions circumvent the need to pay for workers’ compensation insurance. But Ericson also sees Zimbalist as part of the early cohort of Drake Group leaders and college sports critics who moved the focus to athlete rights.

Zimbalist, who is set to take over as The Drake Group’s president in 2022, doesn’t see academic integrity as competing with athlete economic rights, nor does he share Ericson’s fatalism.

“The fight over academic integrity goes back to the 19th century,” says Zimbalist. “It goes in cycles. I just don’t agree with Jon if he’s saying we’ve forgotten about it.”

To be sure, one can detect some renewed inklings of faculty rebellion, including at Dowling’s former stomping grounds. This summer, a union representing Rutgers professors filed a public records lawsuit against the university after claiming it was denied documents showing how, amid the pandemic, $100 million of school funds had been transferred to Rutgers’ athletic department. Last year, the same faculty labor group had called on the school to reduce its athletic spending to “re-prioritize [its] academic mission.”

Zimbalist says the argument against player compensation has long been based on an assumption that players were already being compensated with a “tremendously valuable tool”:  a college education.

“And the fact that there hasn’t been significant improvement in that regard — in fact, you can argue it’s deteriorated, that there’s less attention paid to whether they’re getting an education or not — that puts an even greater onus on the alternative,” Zimbalist says. And that alternative is actual over-the-table compensation for athletes.

‘It was so huge, so obviously corrupt’

As Zimbalist and other economists gained a voice in the reform movement, a group of former college athletes led by Stanford’s Jason White filed a class action lawsuit against the NCAA in 2006, arguing that the grant-in-aid failed to meet the full cost of attendance. The NCAA settled with the class two years later, agreeing to create a $10 million fund for former athletes and allowing institutions greater flexibility in how they could use assistance funds to support athletes. By loosening the NCAA’s white-knuckled grip on compensation, the White litigation laid the foundation for former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon’s 2009 antitrust case against the NCAA and video game maker EA Sports, in which O’Bannon argued that college athletes should be permitted to earn money from their own right of publicity.

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Former UCLA star Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit against the NCAA led to the current flurry of activism over athlete NIL. AP/Lois Bernstein

A direct line can be drawn from the O’Bannon suit and a subsequent case, Alston v. NCAA, which expanded on White’s challenge over the limits on grant-in-aid, to the cascade of current NIL legislation. Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it will hear the case, which could mark a historic turning point for the NCAA and the athlete-centered reformers.

By contrast, such legal avenues never emerged for the faculty activists, who, as school employees, would be hard-pressed to state a claim for damages. “The faculty is supposed to be running the school itself,” explains Marc Edelman, a professor and sports law expert at CUNY’s Baruch College. “If there is a faculty issue, it would be handled internally within the realm of faculty self-governance.”

Beyond that, the courts have been wary of involving themselves in the internal operations of educational institutions, as was borne out in the ruling on a 1991 lawsuit filed by a former Drake basketball player. The athlete, Terrell Jackson, had sued the university in federal court, alleging Drake denied him sufficient time to study while forcing him to take easy classes and involving him in academic fraud. In his suit, Jackson accused Drake of failing to safeguard his academic experience in the face of his coach’s corrupt motives. The court denied the negligence claim on summary judgment, citing federal and Iowa case law that set a high bar for claims of educational malpractice.

“(T)o recognize a negligence claim based on the facts before the court could reasonably be expected to result in an enormous amount of litigation involving college athletic programs,” the Court concluded. “Though Jackson’s claim does not specifically challenge the ‘academic’ freedom of Drake, in effect, it does ask the court to pass judgment on the manner in which Drake runs its men’s basketball program, a program which does have an academic component.”

For all the academic-athletic scandals that became public before and after The Drake Group’s founding, none had proven capable of eliciting a national discussion about the potentially pernicious effects of college sports on higher ed. If anything, the more these scandals proliferated, the less astonishing they all seemed.

Besides, it is difficult enough to make an effective public case against what seemed like a victimless crime, at least in terms of human suffering. Notions of academic integrity — or more generalized concerns about athletics’ ruination of the academy — have often been brushed off as mere gripes of pedantic elitists.

But Ericson thought the University of North Carolina’s string of shenanigans exposed in the 2010s offered just the springboard to capture the nation’s attention.

“It was so huge, so obviously corrupt,” he says.

Moreover, UNC was not just any school, nor just any big-time athletic program, but a coastal elite public institution with a national championship men’s basketball team and a time-honored reputation for doing things “the right way.”

Following a smaller scandal that involved UNC’s football program in 2010, an athletic department tutor-turned-whistleblower named Mary Willingham thoroughly pierced the Tar Heel veil in 2014, when she went public with insider claims about a widespread academic collusion scheme in the athletic department, which included directing hundreds of athletes, over the course of two decades, to enroll in fake “paper classes” in the school’s African and Afro-American Studies Department.

Willingham’s accusations launched a formal NCAA investigation and prompted the university to hire former Justice Department official Ken Wainstein to conduct an outside review, which ultimately backed up many of the learning specialist’s key contentions. Following a torrent of denials and counterattacks from UNC officials, and a demotion that led to her quitting her job, the school agreed to pay Willingham a $335,000 to settle a retaliation suit she filed.

In the hopes of expanding upon Willingham’s findings — and taking a last stab at his pet cause — Ericson self-published a book, While Faculty Sleep, a large-type, 97-page pamphlet, in 2015.

“This tiny, pocket-sized book is intended to be the rulebook for the reform of college athletics,” Ericson wrote in the prologue. “Tiny because there is but one rule: No disclosure, no reform.”

But the Tobacco Road scandal Ericson had hoped would lead to a national reckoning quickly turned into a blind alley — a cursory debate over the NCAA’s jurisdiction.

Among the loudest voices weighing in from the sidelines was Bilas, who used his ESPN megaphone and Twitter feed to argue that college sports’ governing body had no business policing curriculum. To some close observers, Bilas’ contentions seemed like he was defending UNC, which he insists is not the case.

“As a layperson, it was absolutely academic fraud,” Bilas says. “But to the NCAA, academic fraud is cheating. This was the university’s curriculum. The presidents have told the NCAA to stay out of [their] curriculum: ‘You don’t have any business what we teach, how to teach it, or how we confer degrees. So that was not academic fraud.’”

In the end, the NCAA more or less agreed, declining to sanction UNC. The school’s accreditation agency also opted not to hand down punishment. To the extent that North Carolina has become an object lesson, it is through the myriad athletic department documents that the school agreed to make public, which have prompted subsequent investigations on everything from alleged coaching abuse to questions over the school’s vaunted concussion research.

But in terms of the academic debate over college sports?

“I don’t think it has resonated at all,” says Bilas.

As it was, UNC’s L’affaire Papier did produce litigation: Michael Hausfeld, the attorney who represented the O’Bannon class in its NIL case against the NCAA, represented two former Carolina athletes, football player Devon Ramsay and women’s basketball player Rashanda McCants. The players filed a breach of contract suit against the university and NCAA in North Carolina state court, arguing that the school had failed to live up to its obligations to provide them legitimate education in exchange for their athletic contributions.

After the case was moved to federal court, and the NCAA was dismissed as a defendant, the lawsuit fizzled.

“Nobody really wanted to get into the question of what constitutes a good education — at least from a regulatory standpoint,” says Bob Orr, a former North Carolina Supreme Court justice who served as the plaintiffs’ local counsel. “You have to prevail on this theory that the university owed you something more than a class. And so, it was a pretty unique theory.”

‘I’m just shaking my head’

In 2016, Willingham and UNC history professor Jay Smith co-authored a book, Cheated: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-Time College Sports, which recounted the “paper class” saga as a tale of college athlete exploitation.

“When I first got agitated about the scandal and the way our administration was handling it, I came at the problem from the perspective of a fairly conventional faculty critic of athletics,” says Smith. “But the more I learned about how the system works and how the athletes themselves got manipulated academically, and were effectively defrauded of their educations, by the end of the story I had become an athlete-rights advocate and had come to look at the whole UNC scandal through that lens.”

Smith said he was particularly influenced by Taylor Branch’s anti-amateurism writings.

“He successfully articulated this corrupt thing that made the athletes the victims,” says Smith. “And once you bought into that, as I definitely have, if you chiefly see them as exploited victims, then your first priority becomes making things right for them…. And then that leaves all the other stuff you are concerned about, as part of the clean-up operation, to come afterwards.”

After fleeing Chapel Hill, Willingham eventually moved back to her native Chicago, where she works as a reading specialist at a charter elementary school in North Lawndale, one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods.

Willingham says she is getting her most intimate look ever into the lives of young African-American students — and the trickle-down repercussions of a society that continues to endorse the capricious gateway of college sports as a path to a better future.

“I really see now what it was like for some of my [former UNC] football and basketball players to live in poverty, and what it would be like to have that one kid who could ball — and it is a dream,” Willingham says. “It is like we have brainwashed a whole cohort of kids.”

In the years since she blew the whistle at UNC, Willingham has grown more and more discouraged about the prospects for meaningful college-sports reform, even if athletes get a greater share of the financial pie.

“I think I am really at the place where I just shake my head,” she says. “I don’t think it will ever get better until we completely disconnect, until there will be no more college sports. I guess I thought that the Ramogi Humas and Michael Hausfelds and court cases coming forward would fix the problem, that somehow the NCAA would be dismantled by these court cases and there would be a new structure in place to fix it, and maybe college athletes could get the education that was real, but that is just a fantasy.”

‘We lost’

The Drake Group’s current president is Donna Lopiano, a former top athletics administrator for the University of Texas who is known for her advocacy of greater gender equity in college athletic departments.

Lopiano co-authored, with Zimbalist and Gerald Gurney, the 2017 book Unwinding Madness: What Went Wrong with College Sports and How to Fix It, which reviewed the decade prior to The Drake Group’s founding when university presidents seemed to be a force to reckon with. But Lopiano argues that the presidents were “outfoxed” by conference commissioners and the other entrenched powers in 1997. That’s when the NCAA voted to replace its system of democratic governance with a college sports federation that entrusted the association’s power to the leaders of what are now the Football Bowl Subdivision schools.

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Donna Lopiano, The Drake Group’s current president, contends that faculty and school presidents are incapable of confronting college sports. Courtesy Donna Lopiano

To Lopiano, history proves university faculty and administrators simply weren’t capable  of confronting the increasing money and power of college sports.

“Eighty percent of D-I presidents say they can’t control their intercollegiate athletic programs,” Lopiano says, “and they were the only guys who have effectively done it in the past. The faculty is AWOL. So what do you do? Keep banging your head against the faculty wall?”

The Drake Group is “still on the kick of academic integrity,” insists Lopiano. And this week, the group harshly criticized a recent reform plan from the Knight Commission that called for elite Division-I FBS programs to be spun off from the NCAA and form a new independently governed entity. The Drake Group position statement scolded its fellow reform organization for failing to “confront the elephants in the room.” Among these elephants was “a lack of common values about what athletic programs should be at educational institutions.” The statement noted that 40 percent of basketball and 52 percent of football players will not graduate, and proposed “bold remedies” including requiring transparency of athlete academic data.

Lopiano says the group sees Capitol Hill as holding the best chance for college sports reform.

“Now we are talking about how you influence Congress in terms of athlete protection,” she says. “They have jumped on concussion and safety [issues], the [sexual] abuse of athletes at Ohio State and Michigan State, they are into NILs. … Now, how can you motivate Congress to step up and do what the faculty is too chicken or the presidents are too chicken to do?”

So far, however, Congress’ focus is narrowed in on athlete compensation, with a recent NIL bill proposed by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) joining other federal legislative efforts over the past year.

Ridpath, who was integral in bringing Lopiano into The Drake Group, says the organization continues to keep Ericson’s crusade alive, despite the founder’s laments.

“I don’t think what Jon started was a failure,” Ridpath says. “We still have that mission at our core, but we also know that when you talk about the abuse of athletes, their freedom, those are powerful things to sell. We keep academics as one of the main focuses and have it ride the coattails of the issues that are, quite frankly, a little more sexy.”

Ericson takes cold comfort in a strategy that leaves the most pressing concerns, as he sees them, lagging behind.

“We lost,” he says. “I think the evidence is clear that there is no interest in addressing the academic corruption in college sports.”

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