The pursuit of glory in big-time sports was a disaster waiting to happen at UNC Chapel Hill, as it is at every school so obsessed with athletic success that it neglects the commitment to academic values that is at the heart of a university’s character. Here’s an an editorial I wrote for the Charlotte Observer on the topic on Feb. 8, 1982, titled “Graham’s Quaint View of Sports.” It’s in my book, “Liberating Dixie: An Editor’s Life, from Ole Miss to Obama.”
The argument over whether big-college sports should be amateur or professional is pretty much over. Professionalism is a fact, and it has its merits. One the days of big games, not just students and alumni but well-wishers through the nation pin their hopes on their favorite teams.
The result is a community of interest that can bring fame and fortune to winning campuses. Success in sports keeps a school’s name in the public eye, encouraging friends and legislators to support academic as well as athletic programs.
It’s difficult to imagine how things would be if UNC President Frank Porter Graham hadn’t been thwarted in the mid-1930s. As a story in Sunday’s Observer recalled, he pushed for regulations that would have kept college athletics truly a student pastime, not quite like the debate club but certainly not the multi-billion-dollar entertainment enterprise it is today.
One thing intercollegiate athletics probably would not be, if Dr. Graham had succeeded, is proof that if the payoff is big enough, many colleges will tolerate corruption, exploitation of students and violation of the ethical principles taught in their classrooms.
Dr. Graham thought intercollegiate athletics should be run for the students by the university, not for the fans by the alumni association. You can see how old-fashioned he was.
Dr. Graham’s problem was a certain narrowness of perspective. He thought the business of a university was education, not mass entertainment. And he believed every activity of a university ought to be in keeping with the principles that were valued there. If it wasn’t, the fault, he believed, was not the coach’s or the fans’, but the university leaders’.
As one of his admirers observed, Dr. Graham, who died in 1972, was guilty of being an idealist. How in the world did he get to run a big business like a university, anyway?