Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Perilous Journey to Mount Fame: Competing Approaches to College Athletics Reform

As Frodo and Sam slunk closer to Mount Doom, the weight of the One Ring bore down on Frodo, its affects increasingly noxious. Frodo became sullen and suspicious, vulnerable to whispers of conspiracy. Overcome by paranoia, he lashed out against his only loyal friend, eventually abandoning Sam to follow the conniving Gollum. Frodo became someone other than himself, as the power of the Ring consumed him and nearly destroyed him.

Throughout the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, the allure of the One Ring exerted a corrupting force on all who were tempted by its power. In a similar way, the allure of the media spotlight has exerted a compromising force on Jay Smith and Mary Willingham to the point that they have become people other than themselves. Once dedicated educators content to focus inconspicuously on their respective professional interests, they have in the past year and a half thrust themselves into a national debate, using duplicity and defamation to attract fame. With Smith as her official business partner and chief supporter, Willingham has advertised fabricated statistics about UNC athletes’ reading levels, denied violating the ethical limitations on her research, falsely accused the university of conspiracy, unlawfully accessed athletes’ protected academic records and then publicized information from those records, disparaged her former office, and obfuscated the challenges to her claims. The One Ring of notoriety is indeed pernicious.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them.
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

Selective Reading

In Smith’s most recent blog entry on the Paper Class Inc. website, he accused me of playing “Gollum to Willingham’s Frodo.” For those unfamiliar with the trilogy, Gollum was the bedraggled, indigent creature with multiple personalities all competing to reclaim the One Ring, his “precious.” Surmising on my impetus for challenging Willingham’s claims, Smith wrote of me, “He wants to protect his ‘precious’–the collegiate model of sport whose virtues he has made part of his own identity, the very justification for his professional life.” In other words, Smith believes I am merely an apologist for college athletics.

Clearly, however, Smith is a selective reader.

To conclude my April 1 essay about Smith’s silent dishonesty, I wrote, “Reform achieved at the expense of our integrity is surely not reform that will last.” Ten days later, in a counter-response to Smith, I asserted, “True reform requires integrity and ideas, not duplicity and defamation.” Most importantly, the day before Smith’s latest blog entry, I published my essay “My Job Is to Educate, Not to Cheer,” in which I directly and thoroughly elucidate my commitment to educating student-athletes, not just supporting their athletic endeavors. In the conclusion to that essay, I explained, 

Having worked so closely to college athletics for nearly four years now, I am as aware as anyone of the need for reform in college athletics. Yet I still believe college athletics can be a legitimate means of providing a real education to students who otherwise might not have the opportunity to experience such an education. I am an educator far more than I am a sports fan, and I would not have worked in academic support these past four years if I did not believe my work is educative for my students. 

Protecting the current model of college athletics is discernibly not my objective.

Toward a Philosophy of Reform

In this essay, I will elaborate on my support for reform in college athletics, and, in so doing, further differentiate the competing philosophies and ethics distinguishing my approach from Paper Class Inc.’s approach. First, I want to go on record stating that I support the plaintiffs in the O’Bannon lawsuit against the NCAA. Few outside the offices in Indianapolis still deny that college athletes should have the right to an equitable share in the billions of dollars generated from their performance on the court and on the field. Although the NCAA has immense stores of fiscal capital, the O’Bannon plaintiffs’ political capital following the Northwestern football players’ labor victory seems to have increased substantially, and I am optimistic the federal court will rule in the plaintiffs’ favor. Such a ruling will undoubtedly hasten irreversible and long-overdue reform in college athletics.

Second, I want to go on record stating that I have supported the Northwestern football players’ efforts to unionize since the beginning of their campaign. Although I do not necessarily believe unionization is the most effective means for college athletes to advocate for themselves, I believe no reform is more critical than reform that recognizes college athletes as primary stakeholders in the policy-making and structure of college athletics. In fact, if my writing leads to my future involvement in the reform campaign, the cause behind which I would lend my support is the effort to grant college athletes equitable seating in the governance of college athletics. The Northwestern football players’ winning the right to unionize was a symbolic victory in the campaign to give college athletes their due seat at the negotiating table.

Both my general approach to education and my perspective on college athletics reform is informed by the ideas of the philosopher John Dewey and the educational theorist Paulo Freire. Throughout the early 20th century, Dewey was one of the most prolific expositors of democracy as a way of life, not just a political system. He believed democracy was a means of organizing all social life so as to endow the members of any social group with an equitable stake in directing the course of the organization. By including all members of the group in the decision-making process, Dewey believed, the group would maximize the potential for members to experience growth, the fundamental activity and aim of social life. Drawing on Dewey’s conception of democracy, I believe college athletes must be invested with an equitable share of the executive power over college athletics. Essentially, I believe college athletics needs to be democratized.

In his highly influential book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary Edition, Paulo Freire argued that the task of educating involves, first, awakening students to the forces of oppression that may be acting upon them and, then, empowering them to resist those forces. Furthermore, Freire believed educators, who are often people of privilege, must support the rights of the oppressed to direct their own liberation. He wrote, “Trusting the people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change. A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people . . . than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.” In other words, people of privilege should not view their responsibility as advocating for the oppressed but as trusting and empowering the oppressed to advocate for themselves. Such is my approach to college athletics reform. Rather than advocate for particular reforms I believe would be most beneficial to college athletes, I would advocate that college athletes be granted an equitable role in governance so that they may advocate for the particular reforms they believe would be most beneficial to themselves.

In fact, this semester I have had the opportunity to employ Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed directly with two of my students. Each of the students, unbeknownst to the other, elected to undertake a research project related to the controversy over compensating college athletes. As a reading and writing specialist, I have provided the same support to each of them as I do for every student, challenging them to think critically about the issues and empowering them to develop their own voice by which they can articulate a cogent, self-determined position. Although I have not necessarily agreed with all their arguments, my opinion is irrelevant. My responsibility as an educator in this context is to provide my students with the intellectual space and support they need to reflect on their experiences and ideas and to develop the rhetorical prowess to advocate for their rights effectively. By working on the inside of college athletics to empower student-athletes in such ways, I believe I accomplish much more in the name of reform than those on the outside who resort to duplicity and defamation.

In contrast to the democratic philosophy of reform I have outlined above, Smith and Willingham seem to have adopted a more paternalistic philosophy, though their scant and vague references to any direction for reform make assaying their philosophy difficult. On their website, the only concrete idea they propose is the creation of a literacy program for athletes. Whether I believe such a literacy program is a legitimate reform is irrelevant, in my view. From my perspective, the most relevant question is whether the athletes themselves desire such a literacy program. Good intentions notwithstanding, without democratically soliciting the athletes’ ideas and desires, any such proposal as Smith and Willingham’s amounts to one more imposition handed down from the privileged to the oppressed. Influenced by Dewey and Freire, I believe we should enable reform from the ground up, rather than impose it from the top down.

Toward an Ethics of Reform

In addition to the distinction between Paper Class Inc.’s paternalistic, albeit nebulous, philosophy of reform and my democratic philosophy, a profound difference between our ethical assumptions is strikingly apparent. Smith and Willingham have evidently subscribed to a radical form of consequentialist ethics popularly understood by the maxim “The end justifies the means.” Consequentialism is a general theory of ethics that posits right and wrong should be evaluated not by an act alone but rather by the consequences the act brings forth. According to the theory, an act that results in good consequences is good regardless of any collateral harm or of how we may perceive the act otherwise. Hence, Willingham can fabricate statistics and unlawfully access and publicize students’ private information, and Smith can countenance such acts, because the two of them believe they are acting in the service of a greater good. Adopting consequentialist ethics on their quest to seize the media spotlight, they believe the greater good of reform justifies whatever actions they deem necessary to accomplish their desired end, even when those actions may infringe on the dignity and rights of a few.

Paper Class Inc.’s consequentialism also explains their repeated obfuscation in response to the independent review of Willingham’s findings. In Smith’s latest blog entry, he echoes Willingham’s gripe that the reviewers did not have all the data necessary to replicate her findings. Yet Willingham has never explained or outlined the methodology she used to interpret that data, despite my challenging her in several blog entries to do so. Of course, as I have explained multiple times, Willingham has offered no methodology because no such methodology exists. SATA scores cannot be combined with ACT/SAT scores to determine grade equivalents. Therefore, even if the reviewers had been provided all the data she claims she used to arrive at her “critical judgment,” the reviewers would be no more able to replicate her findings than they could with only the data they were given, because they would still have no validated methodology to guide their interpretation. Smith and Willingham’s mantra about incomplete data is naught but an attention-seeking ruse, a cynical substitution of chicanery for transparency.

Whereas Smith and Willingham have clearly subscribed to radical consequentialist ethics, most people, knowingly or unknowingly, subscribe to either deontological ethics or virtue ethics. The theory of deontological ethics posits that an act should be evaluated as right or wrong according to the extent to which the act conforms to one’s prescribed duties or to a given set of rules. In simplistic terms, deontological ethics is concerned with following codes of conduct. On the other hand, the theory of virtue ethics posits that an act should be evaluated as right or wrong according to the virtues one displays when carrying out the act. In other words, if one displays desirable virtues when acting, such actions are considered ethical. Deontological ethics and virtue ethics are not necessarily mutually exclusive, as one may apply each theory to different contexts. (For an extended, technical discussion of the conflict between consequentialist and deontological ethics, see the entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

Indeed, whichever ethical theory we may prefer for our personal lives, we concede to deontological ethics in our professional lives when we assent to follow the laws protecting people’s civil and human rights. Accordingly, an ethics for college athletics reform must be, at least to some extent, deontological in nature, in order to protect the civil and human rights of each individual athlete. Under a deontological ethics of reform, Willingham’s fabricating the statistics on UNC athletes’ reading levels is an ethical violation, despite her justification that doing so exposes a compromised admissions system. Furthermore, her accessing and publicizing information from athletes’ federally protected academic records is no less an ethical violation, despite her justification that doing so exposes a “bogus” educational experience. Willingham’s actions while grabbing headlines have undermined the rights of the athletes for whom she claims to advocate. In response, we should vigorously reject the consequentialist ethics to which she and Smith subscribe, instead advocating for reform that protects the civil and human rights of all college athletes, current and former, and defends them from exploitation—even exploitation in the name of reform.


At the beginning of their journey, as the Fellowship of the Ring meandered their way through the harrowing, tortuous Mines of Moria, Frodo became aware of a stalker lurking in the shadows behind them. Their pursuer, Gandalf unveiled, was Gollum, the dreadful creature from whom Frodo’s uncle, Bilbo, filched the One Ring many years prior. “It’s a pity Bilbo didn’t kill him when he had the chance,” Frodo reviled. “Pity?” Gandalf responded, “It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. . . . My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet.”

As I mentioned above, Jay Smith derisively compared me to Gollum, contending that my reason for challenging Mary Willingham’s claims has been to defend the current model of college athletics as my “precious.” However, throughout several essays now, I believe I have convincingly demonstrated that maintaining the status quo is not my agenda. On the contrary, I support efforts to subvert the current model of college athletics in any way that will endow college athletes with the capacity to direct reform according their collective interests. Thus, if Smith’s comparing me to Gollum has any merit, it is that I have played the part of exposing Paper Class Inc.’s reform efforts as philosophically tenuous and ethically problematic.

The next time Smith endeavors to write another blog entry for Paper Class Inc. and, in so doing, engage in rhetorical battle with me, he should heed Frodo’s admonishment to remain in the Shire. Over the past two months, I have consistently demonstrated I am far more skilled than he is with the sword of truth.